How Dance Educators Can Better Support Black Dancers, According to ABT's Newest Soloist

Haruko Photography, courtesy ABT

Gabe Stone Shayer may be American Ballet Theatre's newest soloist, but he never dreamed he'd be dancing with the company at all. Though he grew up in Philadelphia, his sights were always set on international ventures—especially The Bolshoi Ballet and The Royal Ballet.

Even in his early training, he was learning from Russian educators: Alexander Boitsov at Gwendolyn Bye Dance Center, and Alexei and Natalia Cherov, from the Koresh School of Dance. At age 13, he transferred to The Rock School for Dance Education, where he danced until his acceptance to The Bolshoi Ballet Academy at age 14. At 16, Shayer returned to spend his summer in the States and attended ABT's summer intensive—fully intent on going back to Bolshoi to continue his training in the fall. Four weeks in, he was offered a studio-company contract. "I was so surprised," Shayer says. "Having come of age in Russia, I was very Eurocentric. Of course ABT was on my radar, I just never imagined it was for me."

Ultimately though, the choice was a no-brainer. "I was offered an opportunity that was such an honor—I had to take it. Who's to say what would have happened had I returned to Russia, but I have had many wonderful opportunities with ABT since."

Indeed, he has become an audience favorite, as well as a favorite of artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky, who created roles for Shayer in his Sleeping Beauty, Of Love and Rage and Serenade after Plato's Symposium. In 2016, Shayer received the Clive Barnes Award for Dance, and this past September was promoted to soloist, an honor no doubt earned by his ultraprecise technique, stunning flexibility and effortlessly lofty allegro.

Shayer has also developed a reputation for candidness on social media, opening up about racism in the dance industry, and his own experiences as a Black dancer at ABT. We talked to him about what educators can do better, and his best advice for virtual training.

On his training experience as a Black male dancer

"I grew up in a multicultural bubble where I didn't realize what racism was until later in life. At dance, I was often the only boy, and my skin color didn't matter so much. It wasn't until I started competing that I noticed teachers from other schools say things that were both discouraging and confusing. I was training to be a ballet dancer, and people kept asking me if I intended to dance with Ailey or Dance Theatre of Harlem. I realized they were referencing those companies because I am Black—not because of my interests. Dance teachers should ask their students about their desires, and then help them get as close to their individual goals as possible."

On the power of representation

"A lot of kids don't see themselves onstage or in teachers. When I was young, I dreamed of dancing with The Royal Ballet. The reason I even saw that as a possibility was because I knew Carlos Acosta danced there first. I was always the token Black boy, the token boy, the exception. When I saw Carlos Acosta dance, I knew that he was the exception too. Don't tokenize your dancers. We all want to succeed on our merit."

The biggest turning point in his training

"Going to the Bolshoi was the cherry on top of my training. Unlike other styles, the Vaganova syllabus just felt right. I can build muscles very easily and they tend to be pretty tense—the elongated look of Vaganova, and its emphasis on lengthening, fit my musculature very well. It rounded me out and got me to the place where I could thrive as a professional."

His advice for training virtually

"I'm not doing anything crazy—just maintaining the base of my technique. It's a misconception that you need to be pulling your leg to your face and doing fouettés in your living room. Just maintain and avoid anything that will cause wear and tear. I tore my ACL two years ago, and it took me six months to get back to the studio and eight months to fully dance again. When I came back, I realized my body actually felt great. It was as though it was thanking me for letting it breathe. That prepared me for this moment."

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