Zariyah Quiroz is just 12, but she’s had a dream since she was a very little girl: “I always thought dance, and ballet specifically, was so beautiful,” she said, chatting before class at Pacific Northwest Ballet School (PNB) earlier this summer, “and I wanted to be part of that.”
A rising seventh grader who’s studied at PNB since 2015, Zariyah, who lives in Seattle, has many of the attributes that seem essential for a career in a professional ballet company: long limbs, elegant posture and innate poise, not to mention a supportive family willing to commit to five-days-a-week classes at PNB. But the road to that goal isn’t easy for any young dancer. And it’s especially difficult for students of color, like Zariyah, who look at ballet stages and see few, if any, dancers who look like them.
The visibility of Misty Copeland, who in 2015 became the first black female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, has been an inspiration for Zariyah — and has elevated a jarring truth in this most graceful of arts. Though he’s beginning to see change, “ballet in my lifetime has been very white,” said PNB artistic director Peter Boal, who danced with New York City Ballet (NYCB) from 1983 to 2005.
Currently, 84% of the PNB company (including dancers, staff, musicians, crew, etc.) are white, as are 74% of the dancers. “I don’t think we’re reflecting the community around us accurately,” Boal said, “and I think that’s our goal — to look like Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.” Nationwide, dancers of color — particularly those who are black or Hispanic — make up disproportionately small numbers on ballet-company rosters.
Just look at the very symbol of ballet: the pointe shoe, those stiffened satin slippers in which ballerinas gracefully dance on their toes. Until quite recently, the only “flesh” tone the shoes could be ordered in was a pale pink. Dancers with darker complexions, if performing without tights, needed to laboriously tint their shoes with pancake makeup, acrylic paint or shoe dye, so as to achieve the desired unbroken line between pointed foot and leg. It was an extra step, one that reminded a dancer that she didn’t quite fit in. Only in the past few years have companies like Freed of London and Gaynor Minden made pointe shoes in multiple shades of brown as well as pink, to match a variety of skin tones.
Copeland is hardly the first great ballerina of color. “African Americans have been studying ballet for decades,” said Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). Among early pioneers were Raven Wilkinson, who became the first black ballerina in the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and Janet Collins, the first black ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera, both in the 1950s. But for long periods, Johnson said, classical companies simply were not hiring dancers of color; companies like DTH, co-founded in 1969 by NYCB principal Arthur Mitchell, became welcoming homes. Evelyn Cisneros, a beloved figure at the San Francisco Ballet for 23 years (1976-99), was the first Hispanic principal ballerina in U.S. ballet history; early in her career, she remembered being told to lighten her skin with makeup to match the rest of the corps.
Copeland’s graceful, powerful presence — and her compelling personal story — has captured an unusually bright spotlight, drawing new audiences to ballet. “There have been YouTube postings of people waiting to buy a ticket to Misty’s performances, and it looks like no line I’d ever seen waiting for a ticket at the Metropolitan Opera House — so many people of color,” said Boal. “You see that and you think, this should have happened long ago. Sometimes it’s one individual who gets us there, or at least opens the door.”
But making a ballet company more diverse doesn’t happen overnight — and it needs to happen at the level of its youngest students, to create generations of dancers who look like all of us. PNB’s been reaching out to the community in this way for 25 years now, with the DanceChance program, created by founding artistic director Francia Russell in 1994. Its goals are “to enrich the lives of every child in the program; to build a school and company that reflects the beautiful diversity of the Seattle community; and to train and nurture the next generation of dancers.”
The program does so by partnering with a group of Seattle public schools, chosen by demographics and economic need. However, said DanceChance manager Naomi Glass, students in the program are chosen solely by talent and potential. DanceChance staffers visit the schools and give a presentation to the third-grade classes, which culminates in a movement class. The students are scrutinized for qualities necessary to excel in classical ballet, such as focus and concentration, the ability to follow directions and embody movement, and certain physical characteristics such as the anatomical shape of the feet, coordination and rotation.
Last year, said Glass, roughly 1,500 students were observed and 94 were invited to join the program, which offers free tuition at PNB School as well as transportation to and from classes, dancewear, and special outings and events. Those who thrive in the program are invited to continue a second year; DanceChance students may then enter the regular PNB School curriculum, applying for scholarship help if needed. Graduates of the program often serve as peer mentors for younger students, helping them to find their way.
While DanceChance isn’t specifically looking for nonwhite students, it does have “a high proportion of dancers of color in the program,” said Glass. It’s a ballet equivalent of classical music’s practice of auditioning potential symphony players from behind a screen — when you screen only for talent and potential, you will find a more diverse group.
More than a dozen DanceChance graduates — including current PNB company member Angeli Kiana Mamon-Urrea — are currently dancing professionally. And other programs like DanceChance have sprung up around the country, such as ABT’s Project Plié, which partners with Boys & Girls Clubs around the country to identify talented children and connect them with teachers, schools and companies. (Copeland, famously, was introduced to ballet at a Boys & Girls Club; she’s an adviser for Project Plié.)
And sometimes potential students are inspired simply by meeting a ballerina who looks like them. Aesha Ash, who danced for eight years with New York City Ballet as one of its very few black company members, founded The Swan Dreams Project, which grew from her appearances, in tutu and pointe shoes, on the streets of her old inner-city neighborhood in Rochester, New York. It has since expanded across the country, inspiring children who may have never seen a ballerina before. “For many kids,” she says in a video on her website, “it’s hard to be what you can’t see.”
Once these talented young students have been found, they need to feel welcome. TaKiyah Wallace, a Texas photographer and ballet mom, founded Brown Girls Do Ballet in 2015 as a way to help young dancers of color feel less alone; it has since become a national movement, offering scholarships, mentor networks and community programs. “A lot of girls — this is what they’ve wanted their whole lives, but sometimes they have felt invisible in this world,” Wallace told me in a telephone interview. “It’s so good for them to feel validated and seen, and to see and get to know other girls who look like them, in this world that has traditionally kind of ignored them.”
Zariyah — who did not come to PNB through DanceChance, but has studied dance since she was very small — is a junior ambassador for Brown Girls Do Ballet; she was featured, in pointe shoes and filmy tutu, on its Instagram page recently. Her job as ambassador, she explained, involves “trying to showcase girls of color and encourage them to join classical ballet. I think doing that gradually over time will have a big effect, and I think girls of color will start to flow into classical ballet.”
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s coming. Even in her few years with PNB, Zariyah said she sees the school becoming more welcoming to all. For example, she says, the school recently revised its dress-code rules to allow female students of color to wear tights and slippers that match their skin tone, rather than the previously required pink. “It’s like the pointe shoes — just representing that girls of color are in the field.”
Wallace notes that she’s seen progress in the years since she launched Brown Girls Do Ballet. There’s been, she said, an influx in hires — “more dancers of color are being employed by ballet companies, which is important when you start thinking about the communities these companies are in, and the girls who are going to see the ballet.”
Boal said PNB is “using a lens of racial equity in everything we do,” from the ethnicities represented in company advertising to the faces both onstage and backstage. “You don’t fix these things tomorrow,” he said. “You have to have a process to nurture and encourage and allow people to thrive and feel welcome.”
He told a story to illustrate the point. In 2017, one of the young women playing Clara in the company’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” was a black dancer, PNB student Samrawit Saleem. “She got the part for reasons of her presence and her genuine quality,” said Boal, “but what we didn’t realize is that there was an influx of children coming to the Nutcracker that were children of color.”
In the PNB gift shop that year, three Clara dolls were on sale — one pink, one beige, one brown. “Everyone wanted a brown Clara doll that year,” Boal remembered. “We had some mothers and grandmothers who were picking the pink Clara doll, then going back to get the brown one. It’s a little thing that you don’t think about, but you can — why should the Clara dolls be all pink? Those are things that we’re trying to be thoughtful about in every detail, because the details will make a difference in the long run.”
As Zariyah looks at the years of work ahead of her, she’s inspired by the presence of Copeland, as well as her PNB favorites Amanda Morgan, Mamon-Urrea and Noelani Pantastico, all of whom she refers to as role models. In New York this summer studying at the School of American Ballet, she dreams of maybe joining PNB or another ballet company someday. And she’s motivated by the challenges that ballet gives her — of being part of something beautiful, and working hard to achieve a goal.
“There’s such a sense of accomplishment,” she said, of what a perfect performance — in class or on stage — feels like. “A sense of relief, knowing that you’re at this point and all this hard work has built up to something great. You worked yourself up to become this, and it’s just a beautiful moment.”