A dancer speaks out on how she experiences racism.
“I had to wear a blond wig. Someone darker than me had to wear a blond wig. I live with this trauma every day, but I tried to get through the day and not complain.”
The Washington Ballet is considered one of the more diverse large ballet companies in the country. Yet it speaks to ballet’s overall whiteness that a company with a small percentage of dancers of color can still be considered “most diverse.” Ballet has a racial equality problem. Ballet has a racism problem. Just ask Washington Ballet dancer Nardia Boodoo about racism in ballet.
Unpeeled first interviewed Nardia in a much different context last month. In that interview, we focused on food and her love of cooking. We talked about growing up as the daughter of a chef, what she and other ballet dancers eat to fuel their dancing, and how Covid has shaped her dancing at home.
This time, we focus on racism in ballet. Nardia talks frankly and powerfully about the many ways — from small microaggressions to larger institutional biases — racism and inequality continues to mar one of the world’s most beautiful art forms.
Also worth noting: In the past two weeks, inroads have been made. Several leading pointe shoe makers have decided (finally) to make pointe shoes in shades other than pale pink. Previously, dancers of color had to dye their own shoes and tights — when they were even allowed to wear tights that more closely matched their skin tones. Large companies, from The Washington Ballet to American Ballet Theater, have denounced racism, and acknowledged the need to do better. Hopefully these statements will lead to action. Instagram posts are easy. Real work is hard.
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Interview: Nardia Boodoo on Racism in Ballet
Ed. note: This interview took place on June 9. Content has been lightly edited and condensed for space.
Lisa Ruland [LR]: Thanks for making time, especially in such a powerfully emotional and busy time. I want to start by asking you what the emotional experience has been like for you.
Nardia Boodoo [NB]: I am grateful that my ballet company has been asking me to be a part of things, but it has also been overwhelming. At first it started with the George Floyd murder, and as a person of color, that image of someone who resembles you is traumatic. And then to see it over and over again — it’s not just that image, it’s the one of the jogger being shot and everyone else. Every time I turn on the news we are being killed. It’s like open season on black people. Why? Why is this happening? We have been talking about this for hundreds of years, and no one is listening. There is still a problem.
I am in college, too, and I just finished a really hard class. I was chilling and planning a really nice summer, but now I am going to dedicate myself to educating myself to knowing this better. So I’ve started reading The New Jim Crow and how Jim Crow laws haven’t really gone anywhere. It touches on systematic racism, and it’s so captivating because it’s like exposing your body to the cold. You have no protection. This is the exact experience we are having.
Last week, I couldn’t even focus on ballet. I couldn’t take class. Everything was so overwhelming.
LR: How have you experienced racism as a ballet dancer?
NB: Ballet is still very, very much a sea of white ballet dancers with a few dancers of color. There are several parts I want to discuss about this:
First, how have I experienced racism in dance? Ballet is a symptom of a bigger problem. Ballet is funded by nonprofits and private sectors, so there is no real incentive to being inclusive. It is about who is giving the money and if they care about if there are brown girls on stage or not.
And then we’ve been having Zoom meetings with dancers of color across the country, and we are all having the same experience. It is sad to hear these stories, but it made me feel like I’m not crazy.
It’s always in the guise of people being well meaning. I think that my image is so recent, there is a little element of tokenism. Like the audience is only interested in seeing one dancer of color on stage at a time. It’s a microaggression.
. . .
The guys had to wear blond wigs for Sleeping Beauty. Why is textured hair not considered princely? Why are we saying you have to have blond straight hair to be princely? I had to wear a blond wig. Someone darker than me had to wear a blond wig. I live with this trauma every day, but I try to get through the day and not complain.
I would love the opportunity to tell the company about this. Lots of companies have been giving dancers of color the opportunity to speak about their perspective. As I’m being asked to speak up and be promoted about social inclusion, no one at the ballet has actually asked me about my experience.
I’m being encouraged to speak up by my community. Washington Ballet has yet to have that conversation, but is working toward it. Ballet dancers are trained to not speak up — but this is a different situation for me. I face more adversity than most dancers.
My teacher, who was a black ballerina with City Ballet, was like “Wow, I am so glad that you are saying these things.” I have to use my voice. It’s a lot. It’s not easy. There’s no rule book, there’s no guide.
LR: What should change, practically? I am thinking of pointe shoe colors, nurturing young people through the years to develop dancers of color, and so on.
NB: There needs to be accountability. Reprimands, and so on. Then is education. We need to have required readings, talks. We have to keep talking and educating everyone in the building about these issues if we’re going to contribute to the reimagined ballet world.
Then we need to have follow ups. Some discussions. I recommend every quarter, we have a reading and a talk. I know TWB is very underfunded, but we are one of the most diverse companies in the country, and they need us to survive in this community. They need to inform everyone in the ballet world about the things that go on and how they contribute.
Part two of all of his is addressing tokenism. I need a chance. There are no black directors of major ballet companies. Or ballet masters. We need someone who looks like me at the front of the room, and hiring choreographers of color every single season. We also need to have black male dance teachers. I am hoping to see that at The Washington Ballet.
We need to normalize my image. Kids need to see black teachers and see that black people can contribute. Having us in the building is not enough. You have to diversify the board.
LR: As someone who has been steeped in cooking her whole life, I want to talk to you about food and racism. There has been a lot of talk right now addressing the whiteness of food media. Have you noticed a racial dynamic in food?
NB: That is very very very real. I noticed that, but no one ever seems to question it. But why does a Michelin-starred chef or James Beard Award chef always seem to be from the same community and same background? What is the measure of good food? Is it the ability to make it taste good, or make it fit into a particular socioeconomic area?
Back during the Obama administration, the Obamas’ first meal out was at a Southern restaurant. And he was criticized because it was so unhealthy. But Southern food tradition is part of slave history, so they were cooking with scraps and ends. That’s a part of our culture, and to just dismiss it as unhealthy dismisses that history.
And is it really unhealthy? How is it less healthy than, say, short ribs? It’s that undertone, like everything about your culture is wrong.
LR: What makes you mad? What’s angered you the most in the past two weeks?
NB: It’s annoying to me that people are now just waking up. I feel like my friend group is pretty woke and white people, but everyone is scrambling to educate themselves.
Karen’s been terrorizing us forever, this is not a new thing. It’s like, “Wow. Someone had to die to get your attention.” But I’m also appreciative of them trying.
LR: What gives you hope?
NB: The fact that we’re having this conversation. The fact that people I thought wouldn’t care have reached out. That people around me are actually doing work to help bring about change. I am naturally very hopeful and optimistic. And I just want to be received and actually change for the better. This is uncharted territory, so I am hopeful and scared.