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What is Intersectionality?

“There is no such thing as single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.” Audre Lorde

American writer and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde, vividly paints the term of intersectionality. Intersectionality was coined in 1991 by Kimberle Crenshaw, a leading scholar in the field of critical race theory. Within the intersectional framework, aspects of one’s identity including but not limited to race, gender, sexuality, and ability, are considered to be mutually constitutive and can magnify the discrimination or marginalization a person may experience.

In Crenshaw’s paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” she highlights three legal cases that focused on the issues of racial discrimination and gender discrimination. Crenshaw argued that the court responded to single issues of race and gender; however, disregarded the impacts of the intersectionality of the two forms of identity.

For example, in the 1976 court case, DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, five Black women sued General Motors for a seniority policy that targeted Black women exclusively. Prior to 1964, General Motors did not hire Black women to work for their company. During the 1970s recession, seniority-based layoffs occurred, and subsequently, all of the Black women hired after 1964 were laid off. This policy did not fall solely under race or gender discrimination, but rather a combination of the two. Black men were hired prior to 1964 as were White women, providing each race/gender (Black men, White women) seniority over Black women.

Open book with balance scale on white and tan background

The judge ruled against the case stating that Black women could not be considered a separate, protected class within the law. Crenshaw therefore argued in her paper that by treating Black women as solely women or solely Black, the court ignored the specific challenges and barriers that Black women face as a group.

Diversity and inclusion activist Keri Gray impresses upon the damage of the single issue narrative, “Historically speaking, organizations and institutions have shown us that they want to identify with one thing and build power around that, build influence and access. And I get it, right? So, this idea that you have disability rights, you have women’s rights, you have LGBTQ rights, and those kind of different pockets are really building a strong narrative. But the thing that I find to be harmful is when we’re not building in coalition, because the reality is, is that you have people like myself, who are black, disabled, and women, and so many other things. And when you live at the intersections of all three of those, then you can’t split your political and social dynamics between these different groups. It doesn’t produce real results of freedom and it doesn’t produce real results of access to employment and other opportunities that you’re looking for.”

What Does Intersectionality Have to Do with the Field of Ballet?

Dance is not exempt from oppressions in the intersectionality of its dancers. An intersectional approach and analysis of the systemic oppressions that continue to occur within the field of dance is imperative to highlighting points of exclusion and guide an inclusive approach that honors and values the intersectional identities of its dancers. The more we challenge the preconceived notions of dance, the more we can challenge the status quo. Dance is a powerful and expressive art form that has the opportunity to unite rather than exclude or divide. Which communities are served? Who has access to resources and support? Who is able to participate?

Inclusion, diverse bodies, fluidity, art form for all. When we think of these aforementioned words, ballet is not the field of dance that comes to mind. Words and actions associated with ballet tend to be rigid, elitist, Eurocentric, and conformity. Ballet has normalized exclusion. In the field of ballet, we need to demystify and decolonize these systems of oppression that create spaces of exclusion and an institution that silences marginalized voices. How do we make ballet more accessible to people of color, people with disabilities, as well as individuals of lower socioeconomic status?

How Can Ballet Create a Space for People of Color and for People of Lower Socioeconomic Status?

Brian Syms, founder of Black Sheep Ballet, states, “In the Black community, a lot of people don’t understand ballet, but that’s mainly because we’ve kind of been left out of it. It’s been seen as a Eurocentric dance form for so long. People in my community are like, ‘That’s white people stuff.’ It’s programmed into everyone to think it’s not an option for us.”

Ballet Dancer of Color encircled in a gold ring

Young people of color and children of lower socioeconomic status must have access to dance education and opportunities to view performances as an audience member. If not, the racial landscape of ballet will endlessly reform and will not lead to true transformational change. Without access to training and networking from a ballet studio, barriers will occur in relation to such dancers from becoming ballet professionals. Providing scholarships to ballet studios outside of the child’s local community creates forced integration. Scholarships act as a band-aid approach. Greater outreach and partnership is necessary to create systematic change in relation to diversity in ballet. By connecting dancers in their community and funding training programs for people of color, such education and outreach will support in circumventing the systemic barriers that exist in the current systems of ballet education, training, and institutions.

Historically, dancers of color have been forced to assimilate by wearing pink tights and pointe shoes to create uniformity amongst the dance troupe. Dance wear companies have introduced an array of skin-colored clothing after dancers demanded greater inclusiveness. Members of the dance community started a petition on urging dance wear companies to offer a more diverse range of clothing and shoe color options for dancers of color.

How Can Ballet Create a Space for People with Disabilities?

Ballet embodies specific core techniques that can be adapted to any body. The elements of ballet consist of balance, symmetry, flow, pointe work, extension, and lines. Each of these elements can be broken down and transposed for different bodies.

For example, leg movements can be transposed to arm movements. An entendre, or an extension of the leg, can be adapted to an entendre of the arm. A plie, or bend in the hips and knees, can be transposed to a bend in the shoulder joints and elbows. Each ballet element can be applied to any body part (arms, legs, fingers, feet, toes, etc). Ballet teachers and training programs must be educated that the core elements of ballet can be preserved by transposing movements to different body parts.

Woman in a wheelchair dancing with a man standing

It is important that dancers with disabilities are able to see themselves as part of the larger dance community. Classes should encompass a co-teaching model where both a non-disabled dance instructor and an instructor with a disability instruct the class and provide a model to the dancers. When teachers are prepared and open, non-disabled dancers and dancers with disabilities learn to take up space within the studio and how to utilize their body by transposing movements to demonstrate and execute a ballet technique. Instructors and dancers alike can grow in their practice through integration.

Changing the Landscape of Diversity in Ballet

It is incumbent upon us to acknowledge the intersectionalities of identities of dancers in both the performance and educational fields; otherwise the Eurocentric nature of ballet will continue to perpetuate a homogentisic state and will not lead to transformational change. We must support in efforts that circumvent the systemic barriers that exist in the current system of ballet education, training, and institutions.

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