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Dancing While Black: Managing Racial Fatigue in Ballet


In the classic ballet Swan Lake , the black swan (Odile), is a role that is promiscuous, and seductive. Like Black women as a group, Odile is sexualized. Odette, the white swan, who represents purity, is the antithesis of the black swan. The paradox of Swan Lake is that Odette and Odile are both played by the same person. This is an example of the forms of discrimination that Black dancers face. In general, Black ballerinas, are denied the most valued and visible roles in ballet. They are not given a range of complexity. Black women are viewed through a monolithic lens that marginalizes them to a stereotype that is placed by racist patriarchal ideologies.

This dissertation provides the analysis of the racialized and gendered inequalities that Black women negotiate in the ballet industry. The emotional and aesthetic labor that Black women endure, display forms of inequality that are on unusual display in the industry of elite ballet but also exist within other elite cultural spaces such as visual and performing art. Since its inception in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, ballet has been an exclusive profession dominated by white Europeans. In the previous centuries, ballet was strictly for royal courtiers. During the reign of King Louis XIV, the French transformed and codified ballet into an elite artform. Five centuries after its birth, in Europe and the United States ballet remains a profession that mirrors anti-Black, employment discrimination and beauty hierarchies shaped by racism and colonialism. I will employ a Black feminist lens to examine and to contribute a sociological analysis of a case that has been neglected by research on cultural fields –that is the experiences of Black creatives. Black Americans remain severely underrepresented in many creative industries, especially those that are considered elite of highbrow, such as ballet.

This dissertation draws upon interviews and survey research. I conducted 50 demographic surveys of Black women and men in the ballet industry. The survey includes 10 question which focus on childhood exposure to ballet, economic status, social and family resources. I conducted 58 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with Black ballet dancers who have worked for primarily US-based ballet companies, during on point of their career. The participants included 20 Black women ballet dancers, 8 Black male ballet dancers, and 25 Black women who have not danced ballet professionally, I provide the first analysis of the strategies employed by Black women as they negotiate racial and gender ideologies about Black ballet dancers. I document the forms of cultural capital that they employ to enter and navigate working in this industry. I discuss how Black women challenge the monolithic ideologies by sharing the various ways in which they maintain and or gain the cultural capital needed to enter the space of ballet. I provide a case study that illuminates the forms of discrimination that they encounter as Black ballet dancers face in the ballet industry.

My research examines the experiences of Black women in ballet. Like other creative occupations, ballet can best be characterized as racialized social systems that places unique demands upon the bodies of Black women. Black dancers experience racial fatigue or racial battle fatigue, which is define as racism-related stress and racial trauma (Franklin 2016) that leads to a physical exhaustion and underperformance. Black dancers are discriminated against through an aesthetic regime that promotes Eurocentric ideals of beauty. I provide an intersectional analysis of race and gender play a role in the experiences of Black ballet dancers. Black creatives experience a racialized constraint within the creative industry that affects their experience and access into these spaces from an intersectional lens. They also experience overt forms of discrimination through myths and stereotypes that are internalized by gatekeepers such as administrators.

I examine and define how Black bodies embody a racialized emotional and aesthetic labor. In ballet, the careers and experiences of Black women is shaped by structural racism, racial ideologies, and anti-Black aesthetic hierarchies and this provides a very specific racialized and gendered experience for Black women. Through subtle and sometimes blatant racism, Black women experience a racial fatigue from performing these intertwining forms of labor as the body/self affects each other in ways that served as a constant reminder that Black bodies were not wanted within ballet. Despite breaking some of these barriers, occupational racial segregation is reiterated here through racialized attire, criticism, and critiques of hair, in addition to even more overtly racist comments. In sum, this dissertation contributes to studies of race, gender, culture, inequality, and embodiment by showing how creative occupations, continue to perpetuate exclusion by preserving racial, gendered, and classed traditions that have historically favored predominantly white elites.

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