Underrepresented Dancers: Leaping Towards Equality
When you think of dance, what do you think of? Is it grace, elegance, tutus, pointe shoes? Is it images of petite ballerinas being lifted across the stage? Or background dancers in the music video of your favorite artist? Whatever it may be, most people don’t think of inequality, struggles or sacrifices, however, these are all aspects of dance for those in underrepresented groups. Whether it be Black or minority dancers, plus-size dancers or low-income dancers, all underrepresented groups in the dance community face a world of challenges, though these issues are rarely made known or addressed publicly.
Especially in styles like ballet and contemporary, white dancers have been the majority, earning top positions and principal roles. In fact, it wasn’t really until Misty Copeland that Black ballerinas got the credit they deserved.
Even with some steps in the right direction, Black dancers still have to worry about things that white dancers don’t. One aspect of the dance world that has been catered to white dancers is costuming. This includes everything from costumes, tights, hair, makeup, shoes and so on.
Journee Brownridge, a teen competitive dancer trained in many styles, has always struggled with finding tights that matched her skin tone.
“We are just getting past the barrier of skin tone tights. Shoes that matched my skin were always available, but I always had the issue of wearing tan and pink/white tights,” Brownridge said. “It was the ‘standard’ and made us as a team look ‘uniform’, but it always made me uncomfortable for my top half to be so many shades darker. It made me believe that black couldn’t be the standard in the dance world.”
Mya Riley, a Black dancer who has been dancing since the age of 3, also said tights and shoe color can be an issue.
“It is very hard to find a good shade of tights and shoes for darker shades of dancers,” Riley said.
Hair is another issue for Black dancers. Typically, required hairstyles only take into consideration white hair texture, leaving Black dancers out and forcing them to have to make accommodations.
“One other struggle I’ve faced has definitely been my hair,” Brownridge said. “I wish more accommodations were made for my hair, as I must flat iron it for every competition, and this is very unhealthy for Black or textured hair.”
In addition to lack of proper costuming and dancewear, Black dancers also face the issue of lack of opportunities compared to white dancers.
Jay Alford is a Black plus size dancer and says that spots for Black dancers in the industry have always been limited.
“As a black dancer, spots are always limited. It seems like many times teams are
Looking to meet a quota and once it’s hit many qualified black dancers aren’t given the opportunity,” Alford said.
The list of problems for Black dancers only gets longer, as they also face the obvious discrimination and stereotyping.
For example, Riley has experienced discrimination by receiving choreography based on her race. This ties into Brownridge’s perspective, as she says that there are stereotypes about Black dancers and how they dance.
“There is definitely an expectation for all Black girls to be exceptional in hip hop and jazz styles, when this is not always the case,” Brownridge said. “I’ve heard many insensitive comments about the way a Black girl might dance.”
Even with all that they go through, Alford, Brownridge and Riley all say they believe the dance world is slowly moving in a better direction for Black and minority dancers.
“With all that’s happening in the world, dance leaders are taking the initiative to make the dance world a safer and more comfortable space,” Brownridge said. “Accommodations are made for Black hair and costuming, and insensitive songs, moves and costumes are not being used in pieces.”
There is still more work to be done to make the dance community a more inclusive environment for Black dancers.
Plus Size Dancers
An often forgotten group in the dance world is that of plus-size dancers. Since the beginning of dance there has been an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation that all dancers must be very thin in order to excel at dance.
Like Black dancers, plus-size dancers also have problems when it comes to costuming. Alford has experienced this firsthand.
“Costuming is probably the biggest struggle. I’m really conscious of my stomach at all times which is odd. Since there aren’t plus size uniforms (or when there are they don’t fit) I find myself always pinning my shirt to my pants or wearing high-waisted spanks to hold it all together,” Alford said. “As a plus-size dancer, it was always hard when uniforms don’t come in your size. The industry just wants skinny dancers until recently.”
This issue is just scratching the surface when it comes to plus-size dancers. The majority of problems for plus-size dancers come from discrimination and stereotypes.
Riley was often told that she would not grow as a dancer because of her weight. She even experienced discrimination when auditioning for dance teams.
“I’ve also been told that I didn’t make a dance team because I didn’t meet the weight requirements,” Riley said.
Alford also mentions how plus size dancers face stereotypes from the dance world and the public.
“There is a strong stigma of people thinking that just because you may be bigger you can’t move and that’s just not the case,” Alford said.
Caitlin Patterson is a dancer with 10,000 followers on TikTok. She has often faced criticism because of her size, and even developed an eating disorder due to the toxicity she experienced when she started ballet and pointe.
“It wasn’t until I joined ballet and pointe that I realized how mean and awful the dance community was. It can be very controlling and manipulative at times” Patterson said. “Many dancers have eating disorders because of this.”
With this being said, Patterson believes that some parts of the dance community are becoming more inclusive and supportive of plus-size dancers, though there is still room to improve.
“I think that some parts of the dance world are becoming more body positive, but I still hear from so many dancers on the daily of how even skinny girls get told they are too fat,” Patterson said. “I think that ballet companies need to stop asking for weight. They don’t need to know that number, they just need to watch someone dance.”
Like Patterson, Alford acknowledges the struggles she and other plus-size dancers have faced, but she also has seen some improvements.
“I think plus-size dancers have more of a platform to get the exposure that we wouldn’t have gotten had we not had social media. People are so loving and encouraging and it’s way easier to see and follow dancers that look just like you,” Alford said. “I have noticed more casting calls for plus-sized dancers and more of a community of us joining together to end the stigma.”
When it comes to discrimination or forming opinions on someone, the external appearance is always the first thing we take into consideration. This makes it no surprise that low-income dancers are hardly discussed and that their issues are rarely addressed, as their problems are not necessarily apparent from the outside.
Jessica Edwards was a self-taught-turned-competitive dancer from a low-income family. She began dancing after seeing the hit show Dance Moms on T.V. For years, she relied on the show to try and teach herself dance tricks, since she wasn’t able to afford to go to a studio at the time.
Because of this, Edwards describes her early dance experience as confusing. She ended up teaching herself tricks and turns on the left side, rather than the right side, which is the dominant side for the majority of dancers. Once she was finally able to afford classes, Edwards had to try and relearn everything she taught herself on her right side.
Edwards’ time as a dancer was always a struggle due to financial hardships, even after being able to join a studio.
“I could barely start to begin with. After a few years, I had to quit studio due to it being too much money and I owed money,” Edwards said. “It was also hard to go to competitions out of state since we had no time or money since my mom was the only one who could take me and she works all the time.”
During her short time on the studio competition team, Edwards noticed how she didn’t have the same opportunities as other dancers.
“I couldn’t go to any masterclasses or conventions because they were way too expensive. I couldn’t do any more dances or more competitions,” Edwards said.
Like Edwards, Patterson also struggled to afford dance. She worked anywhere from three to four jobs at a time through middle and high school and took any opportunity to dance that she could find.
“Money affected my career a lot. It’s really hard to get any opportunities in dance without having money, and clearly, as a teenager, I didn’t have a lot,” Patterson said. “I took advantage of every opportunity given to me. I performed at basketball games, my church, talent show festivals, anywhere that would let me.”
Making the Dance World a Better Place
At the end of the day, the dance world still has a long way to go to make sure all dancers have a fair and equal chance. For those who aren’t in underrepresented groups, Alford offers some advice on how to help those who are.
“Whether it’s dance, in the workplace or at the grocery store, speak up for those who are underrepresented,” Alford said. “Help them amplify their voices and make them feel comfortable to be around and be willing to share space. Understand we are all more alike than different and even though we may have differences that’s not a bad thing.”