Black Swan vs. White Swan


My grandma took me to my first ballet class when I turned two. It was love at first plié. Today, as a 13-year-old living in Brooklyn, New York, I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s my dream to be a graceful, elegant dancer in a beautiful tutu, and dance is a perfect escape from the stress of everyday life. That’s why I was so dismayed to discover that my passion involves a huge amount of racial discrimination.

As a young girl going to see ballets, I remember that all of the dancers were, like me, white. I can’t remember ever seeing a black dancer dancing any lead parts, such as Esmeralda, from the ballet “La Esmeralda,” or Odette, the lead swan from “Swan Lake.” Even when the average person pictures a ballerina, they are most likely white in his or her mind.

How could the ballet world let such a thing happen? It turns out that going to a ballet, or taking ballet classes, can be prohibitively expensive. Because of racism, people of color haven’t had the same access to employment, education and other opportunities. This includes being barred by cultural institutions for many centuries. This is something that is changing but progress is slow.

Expenses aren’t even the only problem. Many ballets rely mostly on the corps de ballet, or the ensemble. Choreographers usually prefer for their corps de ballet to all dance similarly, and have the same body type, which puts black and brown dancers at a disadvantage.

However, there are a few exceptions. Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, is a perfect example. I discovered through an article, “Black Dancers, White Ballets,” that there are other professional African-American ballerinas, like Janet Collins, who danced with the Metropolitan Opera House in the early 1950s; Raven Wilkinson, who joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955; Nora Kimball, one of the first African-American soloists (a rank below principal) with A.B.T.; and the legendary Virginia Johnson of the Dance Theater of Harlem.”

These were just the beginnings of my discoveries. Apparently, there is such a thing as a “white ballet.” Because the characters in the ballet are mostly ghosts, swans, and spirits, giving off an unearthly pale white glow, white dancers are usually chosen for those parts. White ballets include “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “La Sylphide” and “La Bayadere.” Sometimes when white dancers weren’t available for certain roles, black ballerinas could perform them, but only once their faces were covered in pale pancake makeup, so that the audience could barely tell that they were black (Woodard).

As a white ballet dancer, I can’t really tell you what it’s like to be a black ballerina and face all of these inequalities. However, I do go to a ballet school that’s very diverse, and I see racism in the ballet world. It doesn’t matter whether a ballerina is black or white, she still deserves the chance to dance with a beautiful tutu on a huge stage.

Work Cited

Carman, Joseph. “Behind Ballet’s Diversity Problem”, 21 May 2014,

Hanson, Kristan M. “Addressing Racial Diversity In Ballet: Year In Review 2015”, 1 July 2015,

Woodard, Laurie A. “Black Dancers, White Ballets”,

Accompanying Photo: “Racism” by Avrah Ross
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