Ballet Black: A pointe in the right direction
The dance company’s founder Cassa Pancho on creating role models and how Misty Copeland has helped to inspire a new generation of ballerinas
Written by Rykesha Hudson
IT’S safe to say that most 20-something black girls remember reading Amazing Grace as a child.
But for those who are not familiar with the story by author Mary Hoffman, it is a modern tale of hopes, aspirations and role models, which is pitched perfectly for the very young reader.
In the book, Grace rightly thinks she can be anything or anyone she wants to be: Joan of Arc, Anansi the Spider, Hiawatha, Helen of Troy, Mowgli from The Jungle Book… and Peter Pan in the school play. But when her classmates tell her she can’t play Peter Pan because she’s a girl, and because she’s black, Grace gets downhearted. But then Grace’s grandmother takes her to the ballet where she sees a beautiful black ballerina dancing gracefully on the stage. Using a positive, black role model, Grace’s grandmother proves to her granddaughter that she really can be anyone she wants to be. Grace believes in herself once more – just in time for the Peter Pan auditions.
And that’s what Ballet Black strives to be – a company that provides positive role models to young, aspiring black and Asian dancers.
Founded in 2001 by dancer Cassa Pancho, Ballet Black aims to bring ballet to a more culturally diverse audience by celebrating black and Asian dancers. They perform and offer community driven classes for dancers and students, young and old, with their ultimate goal being to see a fundamental change in the number of ethnic minorities in mainstream companies.
“Usually when the issue of race and ballet is brought up, the media can be quite negative and often talk about black dancers being blocked out of things,” Pancho says hesitantly. “But I don’t think that’s the issue. I think it’s about access and role models. I think things are going in the right directions. Yes, it may be a bit slow and it’s taking a while to get to this point, but good things are happening.”
Quick to note that she doesn’t think the dance industry is racist anymore, Pancho explains that the main reason why there is a lack of black and Asian professional ballet dancers is because there is not enough opportunity for young people to be exposed to ballet.
“I don’t think we are fighting to be heard or to be seen. And it’s not that there’s racism in ballet because I don’t believe that of the directors in this country anymore. Maybe in the 80s, but now all the directors are very open to all different colours, backgrounds and ethnicities,” says Pancho, who set up the dance company after discovering, during her final year university project, that there was not one professional black ballerina in the UK.
“But if the black dancers are not auditioning, how are the companies going to hire them? And if they’re not going to the professional schools, how will they get out to audition in the first place? And if they’re not going to ballet class in the church hall after school, how will they get into professional school? And if you see a poster with a teacher looking a certain way and all the kids looking a certain way, but none of
￼that looks like you or your child, why would you enrol your kid there?
“It’s an endless circle,” Pancho sighs. “That’s where Ballet Black comes in.”
Pointing out that training a dancer can take 10 to 15 years, the artistic director adds: “Everything is a numbers game, so you can’t put all your hopes on one student; you have to nurture a whole class – a whole school full of kids.
“And the end goal isn’t to suddenly make everyone a professional ballet dancer; it’s just to open up the world of ballet to them. Whether it’s to see a show, or to take a class for fun.”
She adds: “Not everyone can be a ballet dancer, just as not everyone can be an Olympic athlete. I want to remove any barrier to those kids who might think ‘I don’t see anyone that looks like me up on that stage doing ballet, so it’s not something I’d consider’. I think if you don’t see a dancer of colour dancing, even if you don’t want to be a dancer, you might not want to even go and watch the ballet at all.”
A year after its establishment, Pancho opened the Ballet Black School for young children in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, and the Ballet Black Associate Programme for teenage and professional dancers.
“We have this lovely little five-year-old girl in our school – her mum is Japanese and her father is black. She was going to a ballet school in Redbridge where the kids were all white and the teacher was white. And nothing racist was said or done to her, but being in that environment, she started to ask her parents: ‘why don’t I have blonde hair? Why don’t I have blue eyes? Why is my skin brown, can I have white skin like everyone else?’
“Her parents were shocked, so they found our school, and now they’ve said she’s found pride in her appearance and in what she is – a talented mixed heritage child.”
Pancho, whose company of classically trained dancers, will launch its 2015/2016 season at the Barbican Centre with the dynamic, Triple Bill next month, also believes ballet’s white middle class reputation hinders black people from taking part or going the ballet.
“It’s got this reputation for being really elitist for wealthy privileged people. When actually there are loads of aspects of ballet, and dance in general that can be enjoyed without having to book box seats in an opera house with Champagne and whatever else people think going to the ballet entails.”
One dancer who is knocking down that elitist stereotyping is Prima Ballerina Misty Copeland, who had a struggling childhood living in a motel with her mother and five siblings. Last year, the 33-year-old dancer became the American Ballet Theatre’s first black principle dancer. It’s an achievement that Pancho believes has helped to show the art form in a positive light.
“I think Misty has done something quite interesting – she’s crossed over into popular culture,” Pancho, whose father is from Trinidad and mother is British, says. “But ballet in this country isn’t quite there yet. People probably know Darcey Bussell because of Strictly [Come Dancing], but there aren’t many ballet stars that are household names.
“But Misty Copeland has crossed that divide, which I think can only be for the good of ballet in general. And for young girls, particularly young black girls growing up seeing someone like Misty, can only be a good thing.”
Though she adds: “But it’s a shame that a good dancer getting a promotion became front-page news because of her skin. Wouldn’t it be great if we were beyond that?”
Until then, Ballet Black will enable brown ballerinas to stand out, long limbs gliding through a sea of white swans.
Ballet Black will perform Triple Bill at The Barbican Centre from March 18-19. For more information, visit www.balletblack.co.uk or www.barbican.org.uk