Black girls can’t dance ballet: body type or stereotype?

By Lauren Stancle, Staff Writer

“Young, tall and slender to the point of alarm. He liked to see bones. He liked to see ribs,” Huffington Post writer and author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, Elizabeth Kiem. “He liked hyperextension and strength that was mechanical yet lithe. It is Balanchine’s obsession with this impossible ‘structure’ that is often blamed for the destructive eating and body disorders that plague the dance world.”

The ideally thin ballerina body type started with famous 20th century choreographer George Balanchine. The effects of his work can still be seen today. Because of his work, Balanchine has alienated many black women from the dance world.

Freshman Casey Koerner, who has done ballet for 15 years and now teaches dance at the Dance in the Light studio in Bradley, said, “A lot of [ballerina performance] does depend on style, but traditionally [ballerinas are] really long and slender.” Koerner said this ideal physique also includes a long neck, hyperextension of the legs, being roughly 100 pounds in weight, and being “tall but not too tall.” Feet are really important and a ballerina should have high arches. “[Physique] is not vital,” Koerner said, “but it does help a lot in you getting auditions.”

Koerner herself has had difficulty, not being as ideally slender as preferred. She said that major body changes would have to occur if she were to continue with ballet. “Sometimes you can walk into a place and know that you’re not going to get a job because you don’t look the way they want,” Koerner said.

According to Koerner, there are about four or five black girls taking ballet at Dance in the Light studio, and only 1 in her ballet class. Koerner said that only “some of it has to do with body type.” Koerner said that some black girls are very good and have great physique, but black girls tend to have flat feet and leg limitations. “You see a lot of them in hip-hop and Jazz, but not as many in ballet,” Koerner said.

Freshman Casey Ann Littleton says she did ballet when she was around 2-years-old but stopped because she preferred hip-hop. Littleton does believe that black and white women have different body types. “I feel like black girls are more curvaceous,” she said, and that the bodies of white women are also better represented in the media. Littleton also said that black and white women are capable of having the same body type. “Look at the Kardashians,” Littleton said.

DeLana Nicole writes about the struggle of black women and body size in her article, “It Happened to Me: I Am Thin and Black And I’m Tired of Hearing About It” on clutchmagonline.com.

“Because of my slender body frame and proportion, I have been asked about my weight more times than I care to remember. … White women tend to envy my size, whereas black women tend to pity me for it. It’s as if I straddle two different worlds –- praised by white and mainstream culture but enduring ridicule and countless cruel jokes from the black community for the same reason –- being thin,” Nicole wrote.

Commenter, Mack, another black woman was able to relate.

“This is my story too. I’ve always been very thin and people have always had something to say about me,” Mack said. “I’ve gotten so many ‘you look like Olive Oil,’ ‘are you anorexic?,’ ‘go eat a cheeseburger,’ ‘if you were thicker I would date you’ comments, and it can be very annoying and hurtful at times.”

Alina, another commenter, said “I am also a young thin Black female who has been skinny-shamed since elementary school.”

The ballet documentary “First Position” follows 16 ballerina as they attempt to compete in the world’s biggest ballet competition.  Only one ballerina is black: 14-year-old Michaela DePrince.

According to Michaela’s mother, Elaine DePrince, she has to die the undergarments ballet dancers wear under their tutus because they are only “white flesh color” and do not come in dark brown.

“I had a mother once say to me, ‘Everybody knows that black girls can’t dance ballet,’” Elaine DePrince said.
Michaela wanted a scholarship for ballet, but was stereotyped because of her race.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes that if you’re a black dancer, you have terrible feet, you don’t have extension, you’re too muscular, you’re not graceful enough,” Michaela said. “I want to be known as a delicate black dancer who does classical ballet”

The story of Misty Copeland shows that this dream is not out of reach.

According to The New Yorker, “Copeland is considered an unlikely ballerina: she is curvy and she is black, neither of which is a common attribute in the field. But it is her very late beginning and rapid attainment of virtuosity that are arguably without precedent for a female ballerina.” Copeland loves to dance and didn’t start ballet until the age of 13, but caught on quickly and became a successful ballerina, despite how she differs from the “ideal” ballerina figure.

When it comes to dancing ballet, Freshman Julie Gant, who is not a ballerina but has had to dance ballet for musicals, said, “some white people can’t do it and some black people can’t do it.”

Gant said the stereotype of black girls not being able to dance ballet is “literally saying black people have a gene so they are unable to do ballet.” It’s like saying Asians can’t drive, Gant said. “You basically have to redefine human if you’re going to say certain nationalities can only do certain things,” Gant said.

“I believe we all have different body types, and it has nothing to do with race or stereotypes,” Gant said. “Black people can have different body types and so can white people…and every other race… we’re all human and we’re all capable of being any weight or body type.”

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