The Dancing Times, July 2020

Black Dance Matters
A personal response from Ballet Black’s Cira Robinson

July 2020

It’s taken me a couple of days to wrap my mind around what’s happening in my country. Being a black American girl, I’ve seen this situation over and over. Unfortunately, we’ve become numb to it, but the recent slaying of black people is atrocious – the slaying of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, of Ahmaud Arbery and countless others we don’t know about. We just kind of sit here and take it. What’s been happening is the equivalent of a lynching being paraded all around the world, but instead of the city its being paraded around the world. We’re tired. I think everyone can identify with the feeling of exhaustion and the tiredness of seeing black people being murdered for absolutely no reason: for jogging, for standing on a corner, for sitting in their home, for countless other unnecessary reasons – and it hurts.

It hurts because I have nine black brothers and two black sisters, countless black nieces, nephews and cousins, and every day I’m fearful one of them will be taken for an idiotic reason, for a reason that is not any fault of their own. With this whole uprising and everything that is happening, I think we as black people need to stand our ground, but also acknowledge who our allies are – the people who really care for us beyond that one day when social media tells you what to do. What hurts me, and what made me a bit uneasy about the situation, is that there were posts telling people to reach out to their black friends, to do this and do that. I appreciate the messages I got. I truly do, but where were you before? Will you be there afterwards? That’s not up to us; that’s up to you guys.

This also ties into ballet – what we do and what we love as black people and as black dancers. We’ve all had the feeling we were the only one in the studio. I know I’m guilty of going into a place and wondering if there would be another black person there. It’s not being nervous about the steps or the technique, but being the only one who is black. I’m fortunate enough to dance with Ballet Black, an institution that gives black and Asian dancers here in the UK a chance to show our love for ballet to a broader audience because there’s not a lot of that here. It’s definitely gotten better throughout the years, but representation is something lacking in this country, and representation is something that is so important.

Black dancers have been around for years – good ones; ones who are better than others and can dance circles around them, but who are not getting the proper exposure or the chance to show it. Our love for ballet is the thing that keeps us going, even though we have to deal with outside injustices and the judgement of walking outside with this colour skin. I can’t do anything about that; I would never do anything about my skin colour. I love it, but I’ve grown to love it because not everyone loves it. It’s the first thing people see, and I understand that, but it’s a lie when people say, “I don’t see colour”. That’s ridiculous. You have eyes to see. How you treat that person is up to you, and that’s where the truth comes out. We just want to dance, as well as have the opportunity to show our passion for the art form as much as we can. We want to feel the light on our cheekbones, which is the greatest feeling in the world, but we won’t get that opportunity until we are acknowledged for being there, for being in the studio and for being ballet dancers, acknowledged for the blisters on our feet, our toenails coming off and the blood, sweat and tears we put into ballet and into everything we do. Building countries, building civilisations; we’ve done that. All we want is acknowledgement and respect, and to be given what’s rightfully ours if we work for it. We work hard for what we love.

Living in London for over a decade, I’ve seen the difference between here and the US. Dancing with Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Breaking Through Barriers ensemble, I loved being around people who looked like me, and receiving that knowledge first hand from Arthur Mitchell. He made us feel we were unstoppable, instilling a confidence in us that could never be broken because, rest his soul, he had been through it all, too. Yes, he was a difficult man, but he loved ballet and I know he loved it until his last breath. We love it like that, too, and we will also love it until our last breath.

I think the difference between myself and a lot of dancers in the US is that I went from one black establishment to another. I have, literally, always danced with people who look like me. Maybe it’s a fault for choosing to dance where I’m comfortable, but with that comfortable feeling comes the racist comments. Ballet Black has been around for almost 20 years. I’ve been in the company for over 12, and I can count on one hand the number of interviews I’ve done that did not talk about race, about how it is for me as a black woman doing ballet. I’m tired of those interviews: ask me something else, anything else. You ask me those questions. Then we also get questions like “Ballet Black, isn’t that racist?”, “What if there were a Ballet White?”, “Why aren’t you doing African dance?” Do you think I should be doing African dance? Let me twirl on my toes, let me dance in my Freed Ballet Brown pointe shoes that were released
because I was tired of “pancaking” my shoes. (It’s not as if it was thought of by other people, because there weren’t a lot of dark-skinned people a couple of years ago wearing Freed pointe shoes my colour in the UK.) Yet we’re the ones who are “racist”! People need to get off their high horse, take those glasses off and just look. Just watch: keep your mouth closed and listen for once, because we’ve got things to say, and if you listen, maybe the world will slowly change. When nobody is listening, it’s detrimental to society.

Before I ramble any more, I want to reiterate that the Black Lives Matter protests are necessary; they are getting the message out there that we are here, we are human, and that skin is skin. Everybody in the world matters, but right now, at this particular time in history, black lives matter – my life matters, your life matters, our parents’ lives matter and our children’s lives will matter. It’s up to the whole world to stay strong and united. As easy as that sounds, everybody needs to get their act together and be on the same page, but it’s not that easy, unfortunately. Change is coming; I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime, but I think a revolution is afoot, and things will happen, slowly but surely. All we can do is pray. Everybody has to believe in something, and believing in something is already making things that tiny bit better.

Still, we humans have got a lot of work to do, in the studio and out. So yeah, you know what? Check on your black friends today, tomorrow, the day after, and once you are back at work. One last thing – when every dancer goes back into the studio, that first day, every company needs to have a meeting and discuss this situation. My fear is people will go back and nothing will change. Black dancers will still be on the poster, the companies will still receive funding for employing “minorities”, and yet they will still be in the back row, waving a garland when they have legs for days, feet like hooks but skin like mine.