When you imagine a ballerina, what colour is she – black or white? The answer, if we’re honest, is the latter.
But think of a jazz or hip –hop dancer. Pale or dark?
It is stereotypes like these, along with a real lack of non-white ballet dancers and an emphasis on ‘tradition’ that do classical dance a disservice.
Because the truth is that race doesn’t determine whether or not you can cut it in the harsh discipline of ballet.
“ The whole argument about black body types being unsuited to ballet is rubbish,” says Ballet Black’s founder Cassa Pancho, a former dancer who began the company in 2001 after discovering, whilst researching her dissertation on the experience of black ballerinas, that there wasn’t a single one to be found.
“ There are as many heavy-bottomed white bodies as there are black ones!” she says.
We’re talking at the Marylebone, London rehearsal studios whilst the company of six – three men, three women from the UK and USA – prepare for their two forthcoming performances: a glittering charity event on 27th November at the Dorchester in aid of Parkinsons Disease and the Bowel Disease Research Foundation and their own fundraiser at the Royal Opera House on 17th December.
The atmosphere, despite the hard work, is friendly and accessible – no headscarfed ballet mistress banging the floor with a stick. But, rather, choreographer Christopher Marney, who gently takes the dancers through the steps. And they’re an absolute joy to watch.
Cassa explains that the ballet world has been accepting of her company, and they have received well-deserved, rave reviews.
But what about the culture of ballet itself? There are arguments that a black ballerina wouldn’t suit the corps de ballet ( the members of a ballet company who dance together as a group) as the dancers should all appear as one.
“As long as they’re unified, the costumes are the same and they’re around the same height who, in 2009, is really going to stare at a brown face and say it stands out? It’s not even about race, it’s just ridiculous.” she says.
And watching the company rehearse their jetes and pirouettes, the aesthetic argument carries no weight, for these dancers are beautifully graceful and expressive.
But, I’m shocked to discover that the ‘ tradition’ of white ballerinas still exists in pretty crude form.
One of Ballet Black’s dancers, Sarah Kundi, tells me that whilst she was a member of Northern Ballet, performing in Swan Lake, she had to ‘white up’ her arms.
How did she feel about doing this?
“It was part of my costume, I suppose, “ she says. “ But the white make-up was very hard to take off, particularly when we had two shows a day.”
And Cassa explains that the well-known pink ballet shoes and tights emulate the white complexion , the idea being that the shoes are an extension of the leg.
“ So we have to dye our shoes a browny, peachy colour, and the dancers don’t wear tights." ( to perform.)
It’s not surprising that there are so few black ballerinas.
Ballet Black goes some way to address this: they have a ballet school for three to eight year-olds, the company itself provides role models for aspiring non-white dancers and their patron is Cuban ballet superstar Carlos Acosta.
Nonetheless, Ballet Black’s Chantelle Gotobed, who trained at the Royal Ballet School, was the only black dancer there in two years.
But as I talk further with Cassa and the dancers, and watch them rehearse the whole race issue, their whole schtick, if you like, disappears.
This young and dynamic ensemble is actually about the work. The dancers all agree that being part of such a small company, whilst – as they don’t have lavish costumes and state-of-the-art sets - very exposing, their talent is really pushed.
For them, it’s a unique and exciting experience. They have the opportunity to dance as soloists and work closely with choreographers such as Richard Alston, Martin Laurance and Shobana Jeyasingh, who have created works especially for them.
As Cassa says: “ the aim is to see a fundamental change in the number of black and Asian dancers in mainstream ballet companies, making Ballet Black wonderfully unnecessary.”
With such talent the company are bound to go from strength to strength.
And lets hope that the ballet world becomes truly colour blind.
Ballet Black perform Depouillement by Will Tuckett, Sonente by Liam Scarlett and Shift, Trip, Catch by Antonia Franceschi on 27th November at the Dorchester Hotel, London. For more information visit
For more information on the company visit www.balletblack.co.uk