Tatyana Rutherson speaks to former BBC Young Dancer Award winner and 'Black Is King' dancer Nafisah Baba on the systemic racism within the ballet community and the future for Black dancers.
WORDS Tatyana Rutherson
I haven’t put my pointe shoes on for a couple of years, but having spent the majority of my life training to be a classical ballet dancer, my mother still bought me a card for my twenty-third birthday depicting four ballerinas dancing in their tutus. It was refreshing to see the dancers had been drawn with different skin colours, less so that they all wore the same pale white tights and pink ballet shoes.
During my teenage years, I experienced the immense strain that is placed onto dancers both mentally and physically, but my white-passing appearance meant I avoided the extra burden that so many of the BAME community endure in this industry.
A recent collaboration between Freed and Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black – a company celebrating dancers of Black and Asian descent – launched the first ever brown and bronze colour pointe shoes.Before this, non-white dancers had to ‘pancake’ their shoes, using foundation to cover the pink satin. I had first heard about this process during a talk at my university with artist Enam Gbewonyo, in which she discussed her current project, ‘Nude me/ Under the Skin’. She described how her practice “investigates hosiery, particularly how this seemingly simple garment, a staple of western women’s wardrobe has for the Black woman been another mode of marginalisation, ostracization and castration.”
The ballerina Michaela DePrince is an advocate for changing racial bias in the classical dance world. DePrince describes how Caucasian dancers, “wear pink tights, so that their upper body and lower body complete the line. But because I’m brown, I should not wear pink tights.”
Despite moving on from the prospect of a career in dance, many of my peers stuck with it. One who is really making her mark on the industry is Nafisah Baba. We trained together at the West London School of Dance, before she went on to Tring Park and after graduating joined Chrysalis London under Jodie Blemings. In 2017, she won the prestigious BBC Young Dancer Award, showcasing her humbly imperious control and commitment to her art. Since then she has worked on numerous projects with upcoming choreographers, most recently Beyoncé’s visual album ‘Black is King’.
The enforcement of pink tights and shoes in ballet suggests it is a space reserved for white dancers. Baba claimed that she saw ballet tights as a microcosm of the ballet industry itself, policing the boundaries of who could take part. For her, “it was almost like putting on a mask. I remember looking at everyone else’s tights and wondering why theirs were so pink. I was so young, and I wasn’t connecting to the fact that I wasn’t white. I would get new pairs of ballet tights because I wanted them to look pink, and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t look right.
I hated looking at myself in the mirror. I would focus on things like my arms that I thought I could change because I knew I could never change my skin colour.
Ballet as an art and an institution works to favour uniformity: sixty identical ballerinas performing as swans in perfect unison is the quintessential picture of ‘ballet’. Diversity and difference appear yet to have found a place in this world, and race is now the largest elephant in the room.
Ballet originated in fifteenth century Italy, before working its way across Europe. It is not surprising, therefore, that this style of dance favours physical features associated with white bodies. Baba feels that the stereotypes of ethnic minorities are accentuated in art: “they see a Black ballerina and immediately think they don’t have the right feet; their bum is too big or they are too muscular… and they haven’t even seen you dance yet!”
They see a Black ballerina and immediately think they don’t have the right feet; their bum is too big or they are too muscular… and they haven’t even seen you dance yet!
The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted how deeply entrenched systemic racism is in the fabric of our society and it is undoubtedly at work within the world of dance. As a Black ballerina, your destiny feels as if it is already pre-determined because the people that sit on the board – that is, those who control the money – run the institutions and schools, and the teachers choosing who gets through auditions are all upholding a legacy of perceived white superiority.
When Baba visits the Royal Opera house, for example, she says she can “sense the elitism”. She has received strange looks from other audience members and has been asked if she’s “in the right place.” The notion that Black people are alien in that audience further perpetuates a sense that they don’t belong on stage.
Companies like Ballet Black are proving essential in dismantling this notion. Baba was an associate from age of 12, and she recalls that the classes led to her “falling in love with ballet again” as a result of being one in a majority; on returning to her dance college, she felt that confidence disappear once more as she faded back into minority status.
To see that you didn’t have to fit into a form, that the boundaries of shape and movement can be pushed, made me realise there was so much more colour.
Baba never consciously left ballet behind, but in joining Chrysalis London she experienced the possibilities of contemporary dance. “Everybody at the company was different, no one was the same. I saw movement that I didn’t even think was possible. To see that you didn’t have to fit into a form, that the boundaries of shape and movement can be pushed, made me realise there was so much more colour. Contemporary can be anything; you can bring in your own culture and identity.” Before joining Chrysalis at age 21, Baba admits that she had never really been in an environment with other Black dancers before. She reminisces about being surrounded by white people all through her ballet training and school life.
Not seeing myself in the dance industry made me feel like I couldn’t be part of it. Walking into a ballet studio I would feel like a ballet dancer, but in the contemporary world I am Nafisah, I can be me.
Despite lockdown restrictions preventing live performances, Baba can currently be seen performing in Beyoncé’s Black Is King video and she notes that she has never been in a room with so many Black artists. It made her realise that Black creatives do exist, they should be seen, they deserve a platform and stage to tell their narratives. In her journey with dance, Baba didn’t want to conform to what people expected of her, she wanted to pave her own destiny. “Not seeing myself in the dance industry made me feel like I couldn’t be part of it. Walking into a ballet studio I would feel like a ballet dancer, but in the contemporary world I am Nafisah, I can be me.” Ballet, then, can clearly do more to improve its diversity, and if it can make talents like Baba feel accepted, it will be undoubtedly richer for doing so.
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