Trials and Triumphs of Black Ballet Dancers

Oakland dancer and choreographer Ron Guidi founded the Oakland Ballet in 1965, 18 years after the California’s first African American Ballet troupe, the Los Angeles based “Ballet Americana” premiered their first performance.

In the years since Guidi, has become known as a maverick in the dance world and it’s his openness and insistence that dance be accessible for everyone that has lead to such a diverse company.

“I know people perceive ballet as this white art but that wasn’t my experience growing up” said Omar Shabazz who danced full time with the company for nearly 10 years.  “I grew up in a multicultural company.  It was like a family and my best friends.”

Shabazz, who started dancing at Oakland Technical High School in 1987 calls Guidi “Christ-like” about dancing.  ”No one gets turned away it doesn’t matter what your race is and your body type is.”

While the image of the lily white classical ballet dancer is slowly losing traction, Guidi’s open door beliefs still haven’t completely permeated the larger dance community, and while the Bay Area is largely scene as a haven for multiculturalism, dancers in other parts of the country haven’t faired so well.

Michelle Brown, now in her second season with the company, understands and appreciates how unique Oakland Ballet is.  After starting her career in Texas, Brown performed in Paris, Russia and Boston before settling in here.  She says that while her experiences have been mostly positive there was also some obvious discrimination and times she felt “ignored by teachers who don’t want you there.”

Ikolo Griffin, guest performer with the Oakland Ballet, has been a professional dancer for the last 16 years and grew up in San Francisco’s multicultural dance community.  In addition to the years he spent with the San Francisco Ballet, Griffin has danced with companies around the world including stints with the Smuin Ballet and the Dance Theater of Harlem as a Principle.  He says he didn’t have much experience with the racial prejudices of the dance world until leaving the bay.

“Broadway only casts for certain specific parts where as here on the west coast they’re open, and in the Bay Area it’s not that big of a deal.”

Achieving diversity in a dance company is much more of a willful decision than an act of chance.  Like with Guidi’s open approach, the most diverse companies are usually those that work at it.

Karen Brown, former artistic director for the Oakland Ballet and a performer with the Dance Theater of Harlem for 22 years, says she believes artistic directors could make the conscious choice to include dancers of various shades and shapes. In an interview with Dance Magazine, Brown says that “[Black dancers] are being marginalized.  The only people who have the power to make the changes that need to be made are the artistic directors.  You have to decide you’re going to have a dancer of color. It doesn’t just happen.”

And while the choice of dancers falls on the shoulders of the company directors, part of the lack of diversity has to do with the small applicant pool.  Factors including the high cost of classes and equipment and the lack of highly visible role models keep more African Americans from lacing up point shoes in the first place.

Visibility is important.  “You need to be able to see yourself there (on the ballet stage) and be able to visualize it” Brown says, adding that dancers like Aesha Ash from the New York City Ballet and Lauren Ashford were the first black dancers who inspired her.

Outreach to underserved communities is also important and to this end, dancers with the Oakland Ballet have both benefited from the seeds of such programs and made it a point to continue the cycle.

“For more black dancers to succeed there needs to be more representation and participation in schools” says Brown, who also volunteers her time and speaks with young people about careers in ballet.  “Another key to diversifying ballet would be to have people on boards, raising money and working with business and partnerships.”

“My role right now is to pass on the spirit and lessons of the Oakland Ballet in the same way that it gave to me” said Shabazz who also teaches youth at area schools.

Brown is optimistic about the future of the art. “It’s possible and you can do more in the next generation and we all have to keep pushing.”