Black and Latina Ballerinas Make Utah History by Playing Leading Roles
Two ballerinas made history as the first black and Latina professional dancers to perform the lead role of Juliet at Ballet West, a Salt Lake City-based ballet company.
Ballet West premiered “Romeo and Juliet” on February 11. The show continues through February 19 with an additional performance in Park City, Utah on February 26.
The accomplishments of these historic principal dancers, Katlyn Addison and Jenna Herrera, are examples of the advances and changes that the world of traditional ballet is undergoing.
From the beginning of ballet until well into the 20th century, several socio-economic, political, and cultural factors made it nearly impossible for people of color to join the world of ballet.
“Historically, ballet was a Eurocentric, elite art form that developed in the royal courts of Europe,” said BYU dance teacher and ballerina Hilary Wolfley. “As the art form evolved over the centuries, it became an expensive and exclusive activity that only some could afford. It’s very expensive to train, to pay for the pointes, the tutus.
Ballet is a demanding and high-performance art form that also requires training to begin during childhood for dancers, so not all families are able to afford the financial and time-consuming cost it creates.
“I was seven when I told my parents I wanted to be a ballerina,” Herrera said. “It was not just a commitment for me, but for my whole family, because they had to drive for an hour to get me to class and had to pay $80 for each pair of spikes I needed.”
The high price of dance lessons, the equipment needed, and the ability to pay to attend shows means that only certain demographics can afford to learn this style of dance. This perpetuated a lack of representation of people of color in the art form.
“When people think of the typical ballet dancer, they think of the jewelry box ballerina,” Addison said. “And when people, especially kids of color, don’t see themselves as that ballerina, they think it’s not for them.”
Addison, who in 2021 became the first black ballerina to reach her company’s highest rank as a lead artist, opened up about how she suffered microaggressions during her career. She said there were times in her career when other dancers with the same technique were chosen over her simply because of a race issue.
“In ballet, we’re so into tradition and into preserving the way things have always been that we don’t always remember that we have to open up the idea of what ballet is and how it’s going to serve dancers who are going to move the field forward, especially dancers of color,” said Shani Robison, associate professor of dance at BYU.
About tights and shoe color
One of the most controversial factors demonstrating the inequality and lack of inclusiveness in the world of ballet is the debate over the color of tights and shoes dancers wear.
In the art of ballet, each element of the performers’ costumes contributes to fulfilling the function of lengthening their silhouette while dancing. Since ballet was traditionally white-dominated, the color of the tights and shoes the dancers wore were pink and white, matching their complexion and skin color.
However, one shade does not suit all different ballerina skin tones. It’s only recently that some professional ballet companies like Ballet West have started allowing their dancers to wear tights and pointe shoes the same color as their skin tone.
“Our director, Adam Sklute, has made a change so that individual artists can choose the color of shoes and tights they want to wear so that they match their skin color and they too can be aesthetically beautiful. “Herrera said.
The BYU ballet program implemented the change from the traditional pink color to dancers’ skin color just a few years ago.
According to the Dance Department’s ballet area dress code, “Flesh-colored tights and shoes may be worn as long as they are the same color. Otherwise, traditional pink tights and shoes are required.
“Changes are starting to happen, but it’s been a long road,” Robison said. “It becomes more and more difficult when there are artistic ballet directors whose mentality is that ballet should be white.”
How ballet is and can become more accessible
Robison and Wolfley agree that the past few years have been a time of change and advancement for the ballet world.
“The development and popularization of the internet and social media has made ballet much more accessible to people,” Wolfley said, referring to video sharing and people taking up new hobbies during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.
Another change that has proven effective in other contexts where there is a lack of diversity is the placement of people of color in leadership positions.
“It won’t just take a mindset shift among teachers, artistic directors, administration and audiences to make the world of ballet more accessible, diverse and inclusive,” Addison said. “It will also take dancers like me to actively become a choreographer or a director to make a change and create more opportunities because my point of view will be different from that of a Caucasian.”
Asked about the effect the lead role of Juliet had on them, Addison and Herrera expressed their gratitude and sense of accomplishment for earning something they worked so hard for.
“I hope to be a good example and that I can inspire not just a young dancer who looks like me, but any young dancer who wants to pursue ballet,” Addison said.