New generation of dancers seeks to redefine ballet

NEW YORK CITY -- The curtains are drawn, the stage is set, and the spotlights are on a new generation of dancers taking over the performing arts world.

With Broadway reopening and in-person performances returning, a group of ballerinas are sharing their plans for transforming the classical ballet image into a body-positive, diverse, and inclusive artform.

"It is a new era of dance, I hope the world can see that," said Devon Custalow, a dancer at the Joffrey Ballet School. "With everything that has happened with the pandemic, I hope we can give more opportunities to people like myself - the striving, struggling artists who just need that one break."

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, it shut down everything including the entertainment industry.

"The pandemic caused a lot of people to rethink," said Tianna Brown, a dancer at Jersey City Ballet.

The world was experiencing more transformation than just that caused by the pandemic, and dance was no exception; it was confronted with questions of equality, diversity, and human rights.

Now, dancers of different backgrounds are sharing their experiences of facing discrimination in the dance industry, in hopes that their stories can inspire change.

With ballet's history of racism and underrepresentation, Tallia A. Petrone, a dancer with Black Sheep Ballet; a virtual company created to promote diversity in dance, reflected on the injustices that the "traditional ballet image" creates.

"I like to think I'm changing the industry just by being there. I'm a tall woman of color, who is curvy - I don't fit the ballet narrative at all," said Petrone.

Ballet has its roots in a traditionally Eurocentric image, which has made it difficult for dancers of color to find fair training and opportunities within the dance community, the dancers shared.

Many famous ballets follow a tradition known as Ballet Blanc (White Ballet), where the ballerinas and female corps de ballet wear all white dresses or tutus.

The dancers share how this classical scene is deeply tied to inherent prejudices for dancers of color who do not fit this "white aesthetic."

This new generation of dance is pushing the boundaries of classical tradition to create what they hope to be a progressive and inclusive community of dancers.

"Diversity isn't just about racial identity or gender identity - it's everything. It's about representing yourself," Petrone said.

She shared how exclusion based on race, gender, sexuality, age, or looks has been a constant challenge in the dance community.

"We had just tendued into the room," said T'Shauna Henry, a contemporary dancer, using a dance term for extending your leg into a pointed toe, "And we're already being judged before we can do an 8-count."

New leaders in the industry are creating spaces to embrace the inclusion of all dancers regardless of their backgrounds. This is exactly what Monique Burgess, director of Nightglow Entertainment, hopes to do with her new ballet, "The Prince of Barykova."

"I want to create a ballet that lets dancers know that there is a space for you," Burgess said.

She shared how the new ballet is promoting diversity by casting dancers who are not immediately considered because of their background or identity.

The dance world needs to be "more accessible - classes are expensive, equipment, training, competitions, you name it comes with a price tag," said Daisy Morales, of Alvin Ailey School.

Now, with many classes and ways of expression finding a home on virtual platforms, dance is a more tangible dream than ever before.

"The positive part about the pandemic is that it's increased accessibility," said Tcheser Feaster of Joffrey Ballet School, "once it's available everywhere you can't stop the progression."

Though no virtual class can replace the joy of being on stage, Feaster shared how the dance community is making necessary changes to allow their craft to continue during the pandemic in a more inclusive way.

"No matter who you are, what your background is, and when you started, I want everyone to know that this is our world together, and this is the art world together," said Brown.

By sharing their stories these dancers hope to shift not only the dance world but society in general toward a more inclusive and accepting community.

"Dance is a really beautiful way that as humans we get the chance to express ourselves where words fail. Anyone can dance," said Petrone.