Is there space for black women in ballet? Amanda Lima wants to show black girls that they too can perform classical dance, even not having the “standard look”
By Marques Travae
We all know it’s true. How many areas do we need to research its validity? Here’s an example. Think of the ballerina for a moment. What is she wearing? Imagine the leotard, tights, tutu dress, and point shoes. She’s usually slim, graceful and agile. Now, based on what the image I just painted, what does this person, probably a female, look like? What race is she? In your experience in seeing these images is she usually black? Be honest.
Whether you’re white or not, if the image of an ivory-skinned blond, brunette or red head came to mind, you’re clearly not alone. It’s the image we most often see and as such, it’s the image that will probably come to mind when someone says the word ballerina. If we’re talking the samba that one sees during Brazilian Carnaval, in the same manner, one will probably imagine a woman of darker skin. Don’t be mad and don’t worry that you’re automatically a racist. We’ve all been programmed that way and due to the lack of images of black girls in leotards, tights, tutu dresses, and pointe shoes, classical dance is simply not the world we imagine black girls to participate in.
Amanda Lima is one such ballerina. A dance teacher, she is well aware of the scarcity of black classically-trained dancers. But even so she sees a glimmer of light in the fact that nowadays there are a number of prominent black ballerinas on the ballet scene.
“Michaela DePrince, Ingrid Silva, Misty Copeland are true icons that have reached an important space when it comes to media representation. Although they are dancers and notable personalities, unfortunately they are still part of a small group. That’s when we realize how much we stand behind the white dancers. The places that we are occupying now, in 2018, white dancers have occupied for centuries,” says Lima, the professional, a principle representative of Evidence Ballet, a manufacturer of products for all segments of dance.
Having been engaged with the issue of black representation in society, Lima easily broke it down as to why there are so few black girls and women participating in ballet. In her view, the area of classical dance is simply a microcosm of the same exclusion the black population faces as a whole:
“As much as some people want to demean our speech and say that it is vitimismo (victimhood), we know that the black population is economically and socially disadvantaged in relation to the white population. And this reflects on opportunities to attend ballet classes, for example. Most black girls who begin the study of dance in childhood depend on social projects or scholarships.”
Lima touched on a number of other factors that may contribute to obstacles that may be placed in the path of black girls who desire a place in the world of classical dance. Some of these factors are interior but still influenced directly by the exterior. On the interior side comes the doubt that there is actually a space for girls whose physical characteristics are not the standard.
“As much classmates and teachers, pictures on walls, videos on the internet, and festival themes (Cinderella, Lago dos Cisnes (Swan Lake), O Quebra-Nozes (The Nutcracker), etc.) are white. So, it’s difficult to recognize yourself in this space. It’s a medium that is trying to expel you the whole time, even in a veiled way,” she explains.
Lima further justifies her point. For the black girl who manages to overcome her fear that the ballerina environment won’t accept her, she then has to deal with the reality of the odds of earning a living as a professional dancer.
“It’s common for us to ask ourselves ‘where am I going to work?’ Because talent, effort and dedication are not always enough. As much as it is not said by the companies, we know that many still don’t accept black dancers.”
In finding a certain level of success as a ballerina, Lima knows the importance of just her presence in challenging ideas in society as a whole that the world of classical dance is not where a black female belongs. As most images associated with black girls and women dancing come through the media and associate more sensual and sexual movements to women of visible African descent, it’s easy to see why this idea exists. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. And Amanda is doing her part.
Last July, Lima became the face and body of the Evidence Ballet brand Minimal collection. Discussing what this selection means to her and for girls who look like her, she expressed her joy and privilege of being able to represent in an area in which it’s so hard to see women like her.
“It’s not just about a girl who does ballet and that she’s black to see herself, but it’s also about proving to all people that people exist and resist. Because it is not just an existence, but mainly resisting. So, I’m really happy to have been part of it somehow.”
Expounding further on this idea of existence and resistance, Lima also boldly states that it is necessary to change image that comes to mind when the words ballerina or classical dancer are spoken.
“It’s an image that the ballet dancer is only a ballet dancer if she has fair skin. That thing in the imagery of the tutu and pink slipper. We really need to deconstruct and demystify this idea that was constructed a long time ago and show that there is not just one type of dancer.”
Rose Prock, Executive Director of Evidence Ballet, echoes Lima’s sentiments, revealing that for some time she’s wanted to see a black ballet dancer represent her company, but due to this scarcity, black ballerinas have been hard to find.
“We looked for recommendations, went to events and even searched on social networks. It’s very sad to see that ballet is not yet accessible to all. Our initiative was mainly aimed at increasing the representation of black dancers in this medium and encouraging them in this art”, the director said.