How can dance education be more humane, joyful, and inclusive? How can the ballet world better support Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color who want to dance?
Dance Fremont Director Emerita Vivian Little shares her personal thoughts and experiences.
Interview by Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor (she/her), a Japanese Filipina American artist, storyteller and community activist, and DF alumna.
Vivian Little never connected race to body type when she was dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet in the 1980s. Years later, she was teaching at a university and her colleagues of color recounted the discrimination that they had faced. Only then was she able to connect the dots between racism and the “defectiveness” of certain bodies. Through this lens, the concerns of her colleagues made sense: a Filipina whose small legs prevented her from earning short-tutu roles; a Columbian danseur with who never had the right “look” for a prince; being of Irish and Japanese ancestry, Little thought about how she herself was often cast as the sensual or Latina role because of her “exotic look.”
Today, Little’s push-back on body uniformity and Eurocentric ballet aesthetics continue at Dance Fremont, under the direction of Director Karena Birk. There is “potential” in every dancer, regardless of whether they become professionals or not. Every body has the potential to benefit from the study of ballet, whether one’s leg-to-toe line reaches up toward the heavens in arabesque, or points down toward the earth; whether one resembles a historic European ballerina, or is helping to illuminate the multifaceted, multicultural beauty alive in ballet. “Ballet teachers must teach to the person, not to an ideal,” Little says, “It takes much more thought, care and intentionality to be inclusive because of the waters of white supremacy we’ve been swimming in and the air of racism we’ve breathed for centuries.”
“It takes much more thought, care and intentionality to be inclusive because of the waters of white supremacy we’ve been swimming in and the air of racism we’ve breathed for centuries.”
GNG: What are some of the biggest challenges specifically for dancers of color that you have observed?
VL: I didn’t dance with many fellow dancers of color during my professional career. In hindsight, the few I knew put extraordinary effort into “fixing” or “disguising” the parts of their so-called inadequate bodies. Messages of inferiority can make caring for our mental health nearly impossible at times. Dance training already requires much discipline and a strong work ethic, and it’s so easy to work oneself into imbalance.
What advice do you have for dance students of color who may be struggling because they feel like they don’t fit in?
It takes a lot of courage to open yourself up to your teachers or other people of authority. You are worth their time and consideration! Seek out a teacher or staff person you are comfortable with. It would be best to schedule a private meeting because it can be difficult to find a quiet time after class or in rehearsal. If you want more support, you could also bring an ally with you, such as a parent or fellow student. If this trustworthy person is not the director of your dance school, you could ask them to share your concern with the director. The culture of the dance school or organization is a large responsibility for the director, and if there is unhealthy or unjust behavior that needs correction, it is with them that change must begin. A dance program that values the health and wholeheartedness of each student, inside and out, will have resources for professional help when it is needed or asked for.
Afterward, if you have not been genuinely heard or considered, ask yourself: Is this the healthiest learning environment for me?
What has helped you to find your own positive relationship with ballet despite oppressive forces such as racism, body-size discrimination, and more?
Rather than focusing on unrealistic body ideals, we can instead teach students to understand how their own bodies can be challenged within this particular dance form. Since I mostly teach ballet, I’ve focused on educating myself about the movement mechanics of the human body in relation to ballet technique. It gives me so much joy to observe and help students, each and every one with unique body types. I love helping people discover how to challenge their movements within the ballet vocabulary. The joy through expression and the special relationship to music has always been the winning positive force in my life. Teaching musical phrasing and watching students make this connection is one of the most challenging but gratifying components of my whole career.
What did your years at Dance Fremont teach you about inclusivity in ballet?
It’s easy to say that giving everyone the opportunity to dance makes the art more inclusive. But not everyone can afford dance classes. Not everyone has what our society has deemed the “ideal body.” Ballet teachers must teach to the person, not to an ideal. Early in my teaching career, I saw the pain of disillusioned students who had been told that they should stop studying ballet at very tender and vulnerable ages. The reason was that their bodies weren’t physically able to sustain the rigor or demands of ballet or pointe technique. As you’ve stated, Dance Fremont was born from my desire to teach ballet to anyone with the desire, passion, and commitment to studying it.
What are some other things we can do to make ballet education and the ballet world more inclusive in general?
This is a huge question! We all know that our society has exposed us to unrealistic images of what “normal and desirable” are. I see some changes happening but more are needed. I have seen young tweens and teens looking in the dance studio mirrors self-critiquing their bodies to the point of distraction. Though it may seem like a Band-Aid solution, covering up mirrors in the studio is something that could help take the focus away from appearance and bring it back to an internal experience.
Talking to students about strong, healthy and fit bodies without sending passive messages related to diet-culture and pressures to be thin are important. There is wonderful health and wellbeing work happening from former professional ballet dancer and licensed social worker Josh Spell at PNB, for example. Integrating self-care learning with dance training can help students maintain both physical and mental health.
The uniformity and preferred Eurocentric ballet aesthetics have created barriers to individuality and diversity in the ballet profession. I understand the concept of the corps de ballet and the necessity to move in harmonious patterns and designs—the idea of standing out as an individual has been taboo in this context—but I think it is possible to create harmony and choreographic design with people of all colors and body types. The dance world and its dancers should reflect the beauty and people of the world. Those of us who support the professional ballet companies in our cities could write to leadership and express the importance of seeing diversity onstage; that they must set an example and lead the way for the dance world and dance education rather than being the last to get on board.
I see some changes happening which are encouraging. Hopefully, in my lifetime I’ll get to witness more ballet dancers of color on stage because it’s time, it’s past time!