Ready for Change

The international impact of the Black Lives Matter movement insists that change is overdue. Three Black artists share ideas for making ballet better.

We have known for many years about the issues around race and ballet, which is still so often a white preserve. But this tumultuous year – where established ways of working were paused by a pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd reignited the Black Lives Matter movement – offers an opportunity to reflect, rethink and maybe even reset how ballet operates. We invited three remarkable artists to share their experience and insight in a discussion over Zoom.

Theresa Ruth Howard danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), and is now a writer, strategist and consultant based in New York. Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy also performed with Dance Theatre of Harlem and is now a soloist with Boston Ballet. Joshua Tuifua, from the UK, danced with the Royal Ballet and is now a dance teacher. He co-created the RAD’s Moving Summer programme.

The extraordinary impact of the Black Lives Matter movement encouraged reflection on the worlds we inhabit. What has this year meant to you?

Theresa Ruth Howard

Theresa Ruth Howard — There are a lot of emotions. For white people, this is a revelatory moment, whereas for most Black and brown people this is just life. We see the brutality projected into the world when we watch the video of George Floyd being murdered; we experience it as we walk down the street, and in the space of whiteness that is ballet. It’s very raw right now. Although I feel the work I do in terms of helping ballet diversify is very important, against the backdrop of everything happening in the world, it’s contradictory. There are more important things on the heart and mind.

Chyrstyn Fentroy — It has felt incredibly raw. It has forced everyone, especially people of colour, to relive some of the things they’ve been through and has opened up a lot of wounds that maybe never healed. The conversation is so needed and I’m glad it’s happening, but it’s hard.

Joshua Tuifua — It’s long overdue. I teach on a musical theatre degree course and it’s amazing how many of my young Black guys have been in close communication over the past few months. They had their assessments, then COVID and the BLM movement, so my role widened, to support them. I had to look after them.

You have all navigated rich dance careers in an environment which doesn’t always encourage Black artists. How have you’ve found those journeys?

Joshua Tuifua

JT — I never wanted to be a ballet dancer. I started going to tap because my sister was doing it. The Royal Ballet School [RBS] had an outreach programme in inner London schools. At the end of the course, they invited me to join the Junior Associate programme at the RBS. I was really blessed that I didn’t have those struggles of fighting to get into a company and then fighting the attitude of race – once I was in the Royal Ballet we were all supporting each other. I never thought about my colour. I’ve been lucky – but now that I’m teaching I’m very aware how a lot of schools look at their statistics and it made me reflect: would I want to be just a statistic to make a school look good?

CF — I am biracial – my mom is Caucasian and my dad is African-American. My mom was a ballet dancer – she primarily raised me and did a fantastic job at making me look at myself in a positive light, so I was blissfully ignorant for much of my childhood as far as race went. It wasn’t until later that I became more aware of race in dance, of the way I’m seen differently by others. A lot of people in my training encouraged me to dance in very specific places – Alvin Ailey, Houston Ballet. Ultimately my first professional job was in Dance Theatre of Harlem and I wouldn’t change that for anything because it was there that I learned the value of being a Black woman in the art, as important and relevant as anyone else.

TRH — At a very young age, I was introduced to DTH. When I saw that cornucopia of brownness, of people who looked exactly like me and loved exactly what I loved, that’s where I wanted to dance. But even at DTH, the culture and aesthetics of ballet were predominant – in body type and even the laws of colourism. They played out in DTH in the same way they play out in the world: the lighter you are, the less of an issue you present.


Chyrstyn Fentroy with Lasha Khozashvili in The Nutcracker. Photo: Angela Sterling / Boston Ballet.

How can organisations make meaningful change?
TRH — I’m going out on a limb here, but I would argue that it’s not as hard as we like to make it. I don’t shift organisations, I shift people. Organisations are people making decisions – we just have to choose differently. I sit in these rooms where people are pondering what to do, and I go, you can just look at the model of DTH that Arthur Mitchell [the company’s founder] built for you – because it took ballet and made it accessible. Anybody can come, the training’s affordable. The organisation was multicultural almost immediately. But we don’t look at DTH because whiteness doesn’t think it can find the answers to these problems in a Black organisation. That’s just the truth.

JT — In England, there are so many little villages and towns that still survive without a single Black person in them. I went last year to watch a student at the Chichester Festival. The lovely white lady beside me asked where I was from and said, there can’t be many English people left in London. She didn’t say it with malice or spite, it was just ignorance. It’s never-ending – everyone needs to wake up and educate themselves.

CF — It’s important for every company, especially if they carry the name of their city, that they represent everybody in the community they perform for.  By creating a space that makes the audience feel safe walking in through the doors, to having something they can see themselves in and diversifying the roster. We have to interest younger people and then grow them all the way through the company so you can have homegrown dancers that relate to the city they perform for. These things take time. We have to start from the beginning, plant seeds and put in the work to watch them grow.


Have you ever felt like a company’s unofficial diversity officer?
CF — [Laughs] When I left DTH for Boston Ballet, I was the first African-American woman to join the company in 10 years – and I’m still the only one. I understood there was a level of responsibility to teach people.  But,  yes, I’m tired of having to explain why my hair is difficult to put up in a twist, or the difference between putting me and someone else in a wig. It’s hard: if you walk into the studio and you’re too upset that day, you’re seen as an angry Black woman. You need to constantly check how you present yourself because you’re taught that you can be seen wrong at any moment. But I’m happy to have the responsibility.

TRH — It’s a job that is put on us. That’s the extra burden for a dancer like Chyrstyn – she goes in, has to do all her pirouettes, all her roles, and take on the emotional labour of educating white people. That’s what I think the BLM movement highlights – do your own work, this is everybody’s job. The onus isn’t on the people who have been oppressed. Unless you’re getting paid extra! You could put that in your contract.

CF — Maybe I will!

JT — It’s important for me to look at the negative effects of how I was taught and progress from it. I made a vow when I went into teaching that I would never be that negative person. The first thing I changed was the vocabulary, the way I communicate. It’s important to create trust: students know I’m at the end of the phone or email. It will be great when we have more Black teachers out there, especially more Black male teachers. But right now I’m focusing on, as Chyrstyn said, finding those seeds. Institutions have to get out, find and nurture talent. You see on Instagram there’s a lot of interest and talent out there – it’s about opening the doors so they can have the training they deserve.

TRH — When I first started this work, I found that ballet organisations were conflating their outreach programmes with their diversity initiative. Outreach programmes generally happen in a non-dance context – in a cafeteria, gym or school. But the reality is that the majority of dancers – white, Black, whatever – come from working and middle-class backgrounds. There needs to be a flexibility in the support system that oftentimes people at economic disadvantage don’t have. The minute you ghettoise this initiative and look only at people in economic crisis, you are not going to be successful. And it leans into the stereotype that all Black people are poor and not sophisticated enough to love the arts. It’s a fallacy. So just open the doors – that would be a start. Open the doors and authentically welcome people.


Chyrstyn Fentroy with Jorge Villarini in Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Coming Together #4. Photo: Rachel Neville.

Do you believe ballet organisations have a genuine commitment to change?
CF — There are a lot of organisations scrambling to prove they’re anti-racist since the BLM movement blew up everywhere. I hope this is real, long-lasting change but it will take time to know if there’s real follow-through.

TRH — I’ll tell you where you’ll see change first – in the schools. Because they have more elasticity, there’s possibility there. We’re seeing more Black dancers ascend into companies, but behind the scenes, in administration, production and technology – those spaces require turnover. That’s where the culture really has to shift. You have to look at repertory, at the stories we tell and who gets to tell them. The audience accepts what they see on stage as the standard. If they start seeing something different it becomes normalised.


What do you hope for the next generation of Black dancers, teachers and leaders?
CF — If I could change something I’ve had to live in, I hope that future Black ballerinas won’t have the internal dialogue I had. They won’t have the pressures of having to present themselves in a certain way beyond just being a successful dancer. I hope that they walk into a room and feel on the same playing field as other people, and not that they have to work extra hard for the same possibilities.

JT — It’s a big question. I’m thinking of all the little dance schools spread out across the country. I want us to think a lot more about growing healthy young people – not necessarily who are going to be dancers but healthy young people who just see each other as people. Openness, love – that’s what I’d like to see in schools.

TRH — I have a lot of hopes. I hope that I don’t have a job – that I have worked myself out of relevance. Really. I hope that ballet can tap into its avant-garde roots, where it breaks boundaries. Where it becomes courageous and can challenge itself to once again be a change agent. That means looking like the world and telling all the different stories the world has to offer. And that ballet leaders are able to interrogate themselves and be reflective and honest about what they see. As humans, not as ballet directors. That’s it – I hope that ballet can be more human.

DTH at the Guggenheim. Photo: Robert Altman.