Blacks in Ballet – A Brief History, Featuring Lauren Anderson, Eric Underwood, and Misty Copeland

Written by Tristan Grannum

Classical Ballet is an art form with foundational roots in Europe. Due to this, many ballet companies have lacked diversity and often only hired white dancers. On average, American ballet companies have less than 10% of its dancers being non-white dancers. As the ballet world has gradually progressed, so has the demographics of ballet companies and their dancers.

There are several reasons why many ballet companies have had a shortage of black dancers. One common misconception by ballet directors and ballet enthusiasts is that the black female body does not meet the classical look of a female ballet dancer.  In the past, female dancers were often seen as tall, skinny, and lithe individuals. Black women were often scrutinized for their muscular legs and arms which did not resemble the standard look of a ballerina. Darker complexions were also frowned upon. To certain directors and choreographers, a dancer’s darker complexion amongst a corps of white dancers would ultimately stick out. To them this would affect the aesthetic of a corps de ballet (the members of a ballet company who dance together in an ensemble/group).

Lauren Anderson, a former principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and international star, is an individual who has reconstructed the stereotypes often placed on black female ballet dancers. Lauren Anderson was hired into Houston Ballet in 1983. Though this occurred post-civil rights movement, many people could not envision a black woman being a dancer with a major ballet company. While at Houston Ballet, she performed many iconic roles such as Firebird, Sugar Plum, and Kitri which were all roles initially choreographed/suited for white dancers. Her performances gathered a new audience who sought to experience her incredible talent. In 1990, she was promoted to the principal dancer rank (highest position) at Houston Ballet. She created history being the first black dancer to achieve such a rank with a major ballet company. Her promotion prompted Houston Ballet to hire more dancers of various backgrounds to directly reflect the diversity of the Houston community. The racial change in Houston Ballet ultimately propelled other company directors to follow suit in hiring black dancers.    

      Lack of representation and access to classical art forms have been the major causes for the absence of black male dancers in classical ballet. Eric Underwood is black male ballet dancer who prevailed despite these adversities. Eric Underwood grew up in Baltimore, Maryland initially being involved in sports. It wasn’t until the age of 14, that he started taking ballet classes. Fast forward to 2003 he joined American Ballet Theater, then in 2006 he joined the Royal Ballet of London. Many world-renowned choreographers sought to work and choreograph ballets on him because of his unique artistry, incredible physique and proficient partnering skills. In an article Eric Underwood, (former soloist with the Royal Ballet) doesn’t blame directors for the lack of diversity in ballet companies but blames the social economic status and lack of exposure to young black kids as the primary reason. Eric Underwood is a leader in Royal Ballet’s Chance to dance initiative, which brings classical ballet to impoverished communities in England. Eric Underwood’s presence on stage is the representation needed to inspire a new generation of male dancers.

Misty Copeland’s career has pushed diversity in ballet exponentially due to her mainstream appeal. Misty Copeland is a black ballerina who rose to principal rank in 2015 at American Ballet Theatre. She is the first black female to receive this promotion. Her historic promotion garnished a new widely diverse audience into the seats of Lincoln center. Due to her achievements, many news organizations, magazines, and media outlets covered her inspirational story and followed her journey as a leading ballerina at ABT. In her interviews, she discussed the struggles and obstacles she often faced as a black ballet dancer. She presented a message of hope to young black dancers who wanted to pursue a career in ballet. Misty Copeland is widely considered as a celebrity. Her career has tied classical ballet and mainstream entertainment. She has danced for Prince and Mariah Carey, has several fashionwear partnerships, and has been featured in numerous advertisements, commercials and movies. Her fame has brought attention to classical ballet from unlikely supporters and her message has altered the navigation of the classical ballet world.

The careers of Lauren Anderson, Eric Underwood, and Misty Copeland are monumental to the progression of classical ballet. Lauren Anderson reconstructed the stereotypes often associated with black female dancers. Eric Underwood is shortening the gap between students of color who are economically challenged and the classical ballet world. Misty Copeland is shedding light on the retrogression of classical ballet culture and ultimately assisting in creating new norms in the art form. The ballet world still has to make great strides in regards to diversity and inclusion, however, currently it is on the correct path toward a new era of dance.


References:
Eric Underwood: ‘i Want To Be a Great Dancer Regardless Of My Colour’
Stephanie Rafanelli – https://www.standard.co.uk/es-magazine/royal-opera-house-ballet-star-eric-underwood-i-want-to-be-a-great-dancer-regardless-of-my-colour-a3091036.html

Misty Copeland

Naomi Blumberg – https://www.britannica.com/biography/Misty-Copeland

Meet Lauren Anderson: The First African-american Principal For the Houston Ballet
Symone Daniels – https://thesource.com/2019/02/26/meet-lauren-anderson-the-first-african-american-principal-for-the-houston-ballet/

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