Brazil doesn’t think ballet is the ‘place’ for black women; black Brazilian ballerinas find more opportunities outside of the country

Bethânia Gomes, Paul Melgaço and Ingrid Silva tell a bit to O&N about the presence of blacks in classical ballet

Note from BW of Brazil: We last featured ballerina Ingrid Silva back in May. Chasing her dreams led her to New York and dancing for one of the most renown ballet companies in the world, an opportunity that she might have never had had she never ventured outside of Brazil, where blacks are generally expected to excel in areas such samba, Carnaval, futebol and menial labor. The diminutive Daiane dos Santos would go on to become the country’s greatest gymnast but she also recalled reactions by Brazilians at seeing a little black girl participating in that sport. Typically Brazilians love to point the finger at the United States as a country ruled by racism. That is no doubt true. But the fact that black Brazilians are able to find opportunities there that they can’t get in Brazil should make people take a good look in the mirror!

Black dancers doing pirouettes on racism

by Mariana Mauro

The Brazilian dancer Ingrid Silva is a soloist of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York (Photo: Omar Z. Robles)
The Brazilian dancer Ingrid Silva is a soloist of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York (Photo: Omar Z. Robles)

Late last month, Misty Copeland gained fame for being promoted in the American Ballet Theatre, one of the leading US classical ballet companies. She was the first black woman to achieve the highest rank in the company, the prima ballerina. Here in Brazil, despite the ballet school of the Municipal Theater having started in 1927, only in 2002 could a black dancer play the title role in “Giselle” when Bruno Rocha danced with Ana Botafogo. But in the end, is the presence of blacks in classical ballet still rare?

Here in Brazil, in 1945, Consuelo Rios dancer wasn’t even accepted to have the audition to get into the company because of being black. In 1948, Mercedes Baptista was considered the first black woman to join the ballet corps (lowest rank in the hierarchy of ballet) of the Municipal Theater, but she didn’t get to dance classical ballets, only nationals. “Mercedes came from the school [of the Municipal Theater] and Consuelo did as a student from outside [another school]. As the dance school had a black student there, the Municipal Theater could not prevent her to having the audition. In the case of Consuelo, they told her that the inscriptions were already closed and so she couldn’t do it,” explains Professor Paul Melgaço at the Maria Olenewa State School of Dance, the school of the Municipal Theater.

If Mercedes sought new paths for dance – she is considered the main precursor of Afro-Brazilian dance – Consuelo played an important role in the Municipal school. She followed the advice of her teacher Anna Volkova, who said, “don’t give weapons to your enemies. If you don’t get to be a good dancer, you’ll be a great teacher,” according to the book Mercedes Baptista – A Criação da Identidade Negra na Dança (Mercedes Baptista – The Creation of the Black Identity in Dance) by Paul Melgaço himself. Consuelo began to study and became one of the leading classical ballet teachers. “She was professor of generations of prima ballerinas and ballerinas of the Municipal and foreign dancers,” he says.

Professor Paul Melgaço
Professor Paul Melgaço

Being black in Brazil and the USA

In the eyes of many Brazilians, Misty Copeland would be considered only morena, but in the United States, no. The teacher explains that there is a basic difference between being black in Brazil and the United States. While in Brazil, the black is associated with physical characteristics such as skin color and hair type, in the United States, being black is more a matter of descent. “We have black dancers at the Municipal Theater, but I don’t know to what extent they consider themselves black or are considered to be black,” he says.

Bethânia Gomes, a former dancer of the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) in New York and that now gives a course there, points out that the “Misty fever” carries a baggage of many other black ballerinas that were opening the door so that Misty got where she is. “Misty is not a phenomenon but the result of a long journey, not only hers, but of many of ours.”

Melgaço explains that racism exists in Brazil, and that is not an exclusively ballet question. “How many blacks were protagonists of the 9 o’clock novela? How many blacks were presidents of Brazil? (…) And if we think in specific terms of ballet, you will reach the conclusion that classical ballet is still living the European model.” In other words, with dancers who have the European biotype. “The situation of the black ballerina in Brazil is not at all different from any professional or black student in the country. He always goes through prejudice yes, but his talent can succumb to prejudice for a while. I feel the same way about the black classical dancer abroad. The question is that ballet is an elitist art and says it is fully of European origin. I have my doubts about that to be honest,” said Bethânia.

Brazil offers few opportunities for national talent, according Melgaço. “We are ‘losing’ a number of talents to the exterior (foreign countries) because the outside offers more job opportunities within the classical ballet … This in a general way.” In this regard, Bethânia has a similar opinion. “The opportunities for black dancers were always better abroad. There aren’t many opportunities in Brazil for dancers in general … Imagine for blacks. Me and my generation were almost all outside of the country. This new generation proves that nothing has changed,” she says.

The model as racial differences were constructed in Brazil ended up being naturalized, so the Brazilians ended up not questioning that, unlike the Americans, according to the professor. “So much so that Arthur Mitchell, who was the first black to have a great opportunity [in ballet] in the US, needed to found his own classical ballet company.”

Brazilians in New York

Bethânia Gomes, Brazilian dancer who will teach a course at DTH (Photo: Nadya Jac)
Bethânia Gomes, Brazilian dancer who will teach a course at DTH (Photo: Nadya Jac)

And it was precisely this company that Bethânia Gomes had her chance. She began dancing ballet at age nine because of orthopedic problems, but didn’t like it, and felt trapped as the only black girl in the class. But everything changed when her mother, who was an activist of the Movimento Negro (black social movement), showed her a magazine with pictures of DTH dancers. Since then she wanted to be a dancer of the company. At 13, she joined the dance school of the Municipal Theater, in the same year that the DTH company came to Brazil. One of her teachers took her to take a master class with the company and that’s when she personally met Arthur Mitchell. She had a brief stint in the Municipal ballet, where, she said, she went through the first and most difficult experience of racism. The following year she was traveling for two weeks in the US with a group of colleagues and with one of her teachers, but ended up staying there. She went behind the DTH, auditioned for the school and passed. Eighteen months later, she and the company danced for Nelson Mandela during a tour of South Africa. She even came to be prima ballerina of DTH. “Today I am returning to the US after eight years in Brazil in different dance projects, including what I did in the Chapéu Mangueira – Babilônia community – and it’s the second year I’m teaching a class at the DTH summer program. I think I’ve realized many dreams. But many are coming. I am a happy cisne negro (black swan).”

Another black Brazilian dancer who is getting her chance with DTH is Ingrid Silva, also a former student of the school of the Municipal Theater. Today, at 26, she is a soloist of the DTH, but her contact with  ballet is longstanding. A former resident of Benfica took her first steps in ballet in the Thereza Aguilar project, Dançando Para Não Dançar (DPND Dancing to Not Dance), in the Mangueira community, at eight years of age. Then she managed to join the Escola Estadual de Dança Maria Olenewa (Maria Olenewa State School of Dance), and the Centro de Movimento Deborah Colker with scholarships, in addition to an internship with the Grupo Corpo through the DPND project. At the time, one of the DTH soloists came to teach in the project and talked to Thereza about the possibility of Ingrid auditioning in New York for the company’s school. In 2007, Thereza accompanied her to New York to audition, and Ingrid got a scholarship for the course.

In 2008, she went to the United States alone and stayed in the school for three months, then joined the company and is now with the great company. For Ingrid, it was a challenge to go to New York without her family and without speaking English, and having trouble getting used to the climate.

“I don’t believe that racism may interfere in the dance world. Ballet has no ethnicity, dancing is for everyone!” says Ingrid. Bethânia, in turn, leaves her message for beginning black dancers: “first of all, believe in yourselves as human beings, that you are there to do what you love, because, as they say, love has no color. May you has humility in the heart, but don’t lower your head. And may they see racism as a challenge, not something that defeats them. And may they do many pirouettes on racism; Until it disappears.”

SourceOpinião e Notícia

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.