Huck Mag, 8th Oct 2020

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The Black ballet dancers taking on industry racism
Beyond The Screen in Lockdown
By Natalie Morris
8th October 2020

From raves for the deaf to Black ballet dancers and ‘outcast’ amateur wrestlers, now more than ever, communities are coming together online to keep their real-life connections alive.

From a young age, Cassa Pancho, who was born in London to Trinidadian and British parents, fantasised about becoming a ballerina. She attended amateur ballet classes from a young age, where she says she encountered people of “all shapes, sizes and colours”.

Things changed for Pancho when eventually, she went on to train at the Royal Academy of Dance and was left stunned by the total lack of diversity. The entirely racist notion that Black people, particularly Black women, were somehow ‘unsuited’ to classical ballet was something Pancho felt acutely, but one rarely spoken about within the ballet establishment.

Wanting to address this, at the age of just 21, Pancho founded Ballet Black – a professional ballet company for dancers of Black and Asian descent. In 2001, the year Ballet Black was founded, there were no women of colour performing in any of the UK’s ballet companies. But since then, Pancho’s company has changed the landscape for Black classical ballet dancers in Britain, giving them a stage, and helping to create more diverse audiences.

Huck first met Ballet Black in 2018 for Beyond The Screen – a video series following six grassroots communities led by people organising online and affecting real-world change. In an update on the series, we revisited the company to find out how they’ve been weathering the pandemic.

Pancho says that before lockdown caused the mass-closure of venues, Ballet Black were a week away from their debut at the Barbican. This has, however, come with a flip-side: “Often, we won’t be considered for certain prestigious venues,” says Pancho. “But now, we find ourselves in the same boat as everyone else.”

Just as the dancers were coming to terms with practicing at home and performing without a stage, the murder of George Floyd happened, sparking global Black Lives Matter protests. “For our dancers, it’s been a much bigger shock to the system than COVID-19,” says Pancho.

Since first speaking to Huck in 2018, because of the 2020 BLM protests, Marie-Astrid Mence, one of Ballet Black’s dancers, says that: “We don’t feel alone anymore.” It’s support that should have come from Ballet Black’s hard work and talent, rather than a horrific killing, they acknowledge. Nevertheless, the company are seizing this moment in history to address the racism, and more insidious tokenism, they so often face in the ballet world.