(Photo by Steve Disenhof. ID: LINES Ballet Training Program students perform in Chuck Wilt’s “Mural” in a black box theater. The dancers stand leaning back on a bent leg with their gaze focused on an outstretched arm. They all wear various monochromatic costumes, with Winston in purple and Lindgren in white.)
With its feet deeply rooted forward and its head turning back towards an abandoned egg, the Ghanian symbol of the Sankofa bird serves as a guide for connecting with the past to understand how we can positively shape the future. That is, to know our histories can help us to better understand our present selves and how we fit into the world around us. It is a reminder to keep moving forward while showing reverence to those in the past who have taught us how to survive, grow, and uplift ourselves and each other.
In the ballet world, this reverence is manifested through a fight for more seats at the table for ethnically, culturally, and racially diverse dancers, choreographers, and artists. This is in part because of the ever-growing number of people, like us, who identify with more than one ethnic or racial background and are exhausted by the privilege and entitlement of white voices dominating the space at the head of the table.
The complexity of existing between two cultures becomes even more complicated in a dance world that glorifies Eurocentric ideals of beauty and upholds white supremacy. Along with favoring white dancing bodies, Western dance techniques are usually taught in an authoritarian manner, which creates a power dynamic between teacher and student and can foster an environment of abuse, fear, and discrimination.
Western dance ideals have had a strong influence on our training: how we receive and process information, prioritize individuality over community, experience feelings of belonging and representation, and regard teachers’ and other students’ boundaries. As our ideas of artistry evolve, we endeavor to develop more awareness of the conditioned understandings and inherent biases that the white supremacy culture of the dance world upholds.
Rather than respecting the physical, emotional, and cultural boundaries of others, we often see those in positions of power fail to accept accountability for violating the boundaries of those with less power. These hierarchical power imbalances promote a culture of perfectionism and emphasize individual thoughts over collective needs, instilling shame and fear in mistake-making rather than appreciation for the natural processes of learning.
On the contrary, non-Western cultures often use community as a structure and value inclusivity and diversity, giving everybody a place in dance regardless of who holds the most power, experience, and knowledge in the room. Differences are embraced, with the recognition of power with each other rather than power over each other.
“You have good legs and feet for a Black girl.”
“Wow, you can actually get over your [pointe-shoe] box!”
“You look too athletic for ballet.”
“I thought you did hip-hop.”
These and similar comments have been directed towards me- and other dancers of color, by white people, and are rooted in the historic, racist belief that ballet is solely for white dancing bodies.
It’s a well-known fact that Black and Brown artists have struggled and continue to struggle with recognition and acceptance in society, and it is glaringly obvious in the ballet world. The subtle and sometimes outright blatant racism in this elitist artform makes pursuing a Western dance career a challenging and often discouraging experience for dancers of color, which is why there is still a struggle for many of us to feel like we belong.
Ballet is stubborn in its attempt to remain in the 16th century by upholding Eurocentric ideas and traditions. But with the growing racial tension and divide in the United States due in part to police brutality and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, it is increasingly important that companies give voice and representation to all different people, and reflect the diversity of society. Fortunately, there are organizations like Nashville Ballet that are doing the work to, “abolish racial inequalities in ballet,” and individuals such as Lauren Anderson, Katlyn Addison, and Misty Copeland who have broken barriers. But as a biracial Black woman, somewhere deep inside, is always a fear that there is not a place for me in this Eurocentric art form.
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I was adopted by white parents and grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, so I have always existed between two worlds. I have often felt the challenge of being pulled in two directions while also being pushed away and never completely fitting in: not white enough for some, not Black enough for others. The ballet studio was a place where it seemed like my Blackness stood out the loudest. I didn’t have any peers who looked like me and even at summer intensives, I was usually one of only a handful of dancers of color in the program. I sometimes found myself wondering if I was there because of my talent or to fulfill a diversity quota. As I explored my future in dance, I feared there would not be a seat for me at the table.
The table. What is the table? ?I’ve always thought of the table as a symbol of a place where people are given equal opportunities to be respectfully heard and have their opinions valued—a catalyst for change. But who is given a seat? Who is being represented?
After years of being the only Black person in the room, I came to believe the table was only occupied by a myriad of whiteness, a place where I would never be welcomed. A place in ballet where successful and perfect dancers, according to Eurocentric beauty standards, get to sit. Balanchine once said, “Ballet is woman,” but in Chloe Angyal’s book, Turning Pointe, she expresses that isn’t the whole truth: “Ballet is white woman, or, perhaps more precisely, white womanhood. Ballet is a stronghold of white womanhood, a place where whiteness is the default and white femininity reigns supreme.”
The first time I was surrounded by dancers who looked like me I was sixteen years old. I was attending the LINES Ballet Summer Program and it was the first time I had a Black ballet teacher, the first time I was encouraged to embrace my ethnicity, be comfortable in my skin, and to use it to inspire my artistic self. Prior to that summer I had given in to self-doubt and the entrenched, exhausting racism of ballet, and had taken a break from dance. I remember feeling for the first time that I was a part of a bigger community. And with that came a renewed confidence that I belonged in that creative space.
As a dancer, one of my goals is to determine what I have to say as a creator and a human being. In order for me to do this, I have to understand and embrace what my history is and who I am. I have to explore the complexities of a biracial identity, pair that with the complexity of being an artist in a racist world, an artist pursuing ballet, and bring my unequivocal uniqueness to my creative process. I am just beginning to understand what it means to be a Black woman in society and in the dance world, and the privilege and responsibility that I have to continue the work of those who have come before me. I am also learning that people have the power to make their own tables—to transform their history, their culture, and their otherness into beautiful and intriguing stories. In order to build my table I need to do the work to create my own community and provide a safe and inclusive space for everyone to contribute. While this may be daunting at times, I know how much representation has meant to me, so I owe it to those who come after me to continue in this work.
As a second-generation Filipino-American, I am constantly reconstructing my own cross-cultural identity and navigating the spaces I fit into. Ethnic identity is at the core of how many third culture individuals define their experiences and think about their future ambitions and desires. “Third culture” refers to the dual identity an individual experiences when they are influenced both by their parents’ culture and the culture in which they were raised. Embracing the liminal space between overlapping American and Filipino cultures and exploring my identity as a dancer is a constantly evolving journey into my heritage and how that impacts my work as an artist.
In a world where full-time company positions are fleeting, with only a small percentage of dancers making it into the “protection zone” these positions offer, I’m starting to think more broadly and creatively about other ways I can build a career as an artist.
I was recently given the opportunity and space to explore my own choreography, which gave me firsthand experience as to how dance can be a vehicle into other expressions of artistry, and how I can connect modalities of other dance styles into my own practice. It is so easy as an artist to do what I already know, but there is so much outside of this small bubble I train in that can feed and inform my work.
When I have exhausted my own creative devices and habits, I can look to a different form of dance to help me expand and play with the expressivity of the language I already know. For example, I can gain inspiration from cultural dances such as the Tinikling, the bird-like national dance of the Philippines that carries deep historical meaning, characterized by rhythmic sequences of hops between two bamboo poles. I can then research how I can reignite my own creative instincts with this dance that has a distinct cultural context, with its own original properties, by reframing the steps I’ve learned and considering them differently through the lens of my own movement practice, while honoring the Tinikling’s origins. ?Paying tribute to long-standing traditions of my past by giving them a place in my current work allows me the opportunity to express a unique identity while also honoring my family who has supported my dancing dreams.
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Throughout history, Philippine folk dances have been performed to show reverence to ancestors, celebrate significant life moments, and build relationships within and across communities. Today, folk dance is used to rediscover and preserve the rich history of indigenous cultures in the Philippines. It is a way of physically encrypting the storage of information, generating awareness, remembering the past, and making the body a repository of both knowledge and memory. What interests me most about community-engaged practices like folk dance is the potential to address social issues and spark dialogue by amplifying many culturally and ethnically diverse voices through movement and collaboration.
As I continue to develop my artistic voice, I aspire to detach myself from the self-serving aspects of dance and delve into the core values and potentials of the arts to help others. Community-based work is often an entry point into becoming artist-citizens –responding to the interests and needs of the communities around us by connecting who we need to be, with who we intrinsically are. I believe art can be/should be a reflection of the human condition, so it is our responsibility to utilize our art to make genuine efforts towards change. I am seeking spaces and opportunities to build relationships with other artist-citizens.
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To gain perspective on community-oriented practices and how they relate to my dance path and cultural lineage, I interviewed someone who is a true embodiment of an artist citizen: Parangal Dance Company Artistic Director and choreographer Eric Solano.
Born in the Philippines and raised in the Bay Area, Solano uses Philippine folk dance as a vehicle to uplift the identities of over 30 indigenous communities in the Philippines and to more deeply understand his heritage. “Our work is centered on past cultures and traditions and how they serve as a pure understanding of who I was, who I am, and what I want to do in moving the community forward and giving back to those we have learned from,” Solano told me in an interview.
As the company continues to transform, Solano balances his own ideas and visions with maintaining the integrity of the original movement he learns from indigenous people during immersion trips to the Philippines. Solano explains that the company goes through a review process in building trust with the communities, adjusting until they receive a final blessing from the elders to ensure the performed dance remains as authentic as possible. He vocalizes his responsibility to pay tribute to tradition rather than replacing or erasing it, critical when redesigning dances for performance. In centering community-engaged projects, Solano says, “Our work is not about me. It’s more about acknowledging the talent, skills, and commitment from the members of the company and leveraging that to help them develop into their own artistic voices and potentials, not just for the company, but also for the communities they work with.” Rather than looking at the artist as an individual, they are a part of a whole community.
Solano speaks about navigating a distinctive cross-cultural identity of both American and Filipino cultures and how that informs his aspirations as an artist-citizen. “On paper I am American, because I need to be able to survive and adjust to the rules of this country, but my
heart, my mind, and my soul are Filipino, [which impacts] the projects I do, how I’m going to help people, and how I can uplift communities.”
Solano also discusses the racism towards and within the Filipino community. One of the pieces Parangal is cultivating for next year embodies the Tarog Ati people of Guimaras, an island province in the Philippines, and the discrimination and exploitation they experience because of the color of their skin. Relating it to the symbol of the Sankofa bird, he says, “This is who we were, this is who we are still, and this is who we are going to be, so what has to change if we are going to keep moving forward?” These Tarog Ati communities don’t have a seat at the table, a space where they are recognized and accepted. Solano strives to advocate for more visibility for these groups and their stories. Through their work, Parangal Dance Company has created not only a table of their own, but also a table for others in the community who are otherwise unseen and unheard.
Another interpretation of the Sankofa bird says: it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot; meaning, if we mistakenly overlook the past, it is okay to retrace our steps and make amends. Solano elaborates, “Now you’re not just responsible for your art, you’re responsible for people’s living cultures. The process of learning and unlearning is not about the mistakes, but rather about the opportunity to make change, because you can’t change the past.” He acknowledges what he didn’t know when he began his dance journey at age 15, and recognizes how he can still change today to continue to improve his ways of learning. “The world has changed. The access to information has changed. The access to the village and culture-bearers has changed, so we also need to change our process to keep the cultural integrity of the work.” For instance, Solano staged a bird dance back in 1993. Today, the dance is still
being performed, but its cultural integrity is now better preserved through research and guidance directly from indigenous communities.
As for the future of dance, Solano aims to continue to decolonize the system and encourage self-identity through his art. Parangal is the first Filipino folk dance group to be awarded a New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Project grant, and Solano also dreams of more funding to better pay artists as well as continue to prioritize indigenous community members in his work. Furthermore, he anticipates a “cultural revolution,” a term coined by Cirilo “Sapi” Bawer, also known as Papa Bawer, a culture-bearer of the Kalinga community. Solano hopes that through the medium of dance, more Filipinos embrace and take pride in who they are. “We have a lot of work to do, and hopefully the younger generations join the mission so that we can continue in our cultural revolution and in the renaissance in Philippine art, culture, and our own people.”
Through exploration of my own responsibility in this cultural revolution, I am committed to the process of nurturing my artistic intention to advocate for social change and elevate the culturally diverse communities around me.
Madison and Olivia:
Dance can be a competitive, demanding, and inequitable field, but we are fortunate to have built a close empathetic friendship in which we challenge one another, give each other the courage to uplift our individual identities, and share inspiration and imagination. We are currently in our second and final year of the LINES Training Program, and for this past year and a half we have bonded over our similar experiences as biracial artists to which few of our classmates can relate. However, this feeling of otherness is not all that drew us to each other; we also hold comparable morals, work ethics, and excitement relating to dance and future ambitions.
Cultivating relationships with mentors, teachers, and peers that foster understanding, encouragement, and guidance when mistakes are made is necessary in the development of an artist. We believe it is important to have a community that supports one other to impact change and make more seats available at our table. “Creating your own table will take a lot of work, a lot of courage,” Solano reflected. “You can be put down, you can be ignored, a lot of doors will close, guaranteed…But what’s important is the progress you have made in that journey, and if we’re lucky enough we have the people by our side to join that journey.”
Our hope is that artists become so valuable to their communities, and communities become so valuable to the artists amidst them, that we are able to protect each other and continue to improve the condition of the arts in American society. As our understanding of what is possible for the future of a life in the arts evolves, we strive to become more in tune with our pasts. We intend to have a positive impact on the present and future generations of artists, and look to the Sankofa bird as a guide for gaining understanding from the past to collectively shape the future.
Olivia Winston is a dancer based in San Francisco. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, she received her training in the Ballet West Professional Training Division and is currently in the Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program. Olivia has had the opportunity to learn and perform works by Kameron Saunders, Keelan Whitmore, Penny Saunders, Carmen Rozenstraten, Chuck Wilt, and Mike Tyus. She has received additional training over the summers at Hubbard Street Dance Company, American Ballet Theater, Ballet West, Houston Ballet, and ArtÉmotion.
Madison Lindgren was raised in Lubbock, Texas where she began her training at Ballet Lubbock. She then continued her education at the University of Utah and the Alonzo King LINES Ballet BFA Program at Dominican University. Madison is presently in the LINES Ballet Training Program, where she has had the opportunity to perform new works by faculty and guest choreographers, as well as explore her interests in her own choreography. Madison has also trained at programs such as the Jacob’s Pillow Contemporary Program, School of American Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.
This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of In Dance.