Studio Owners

"Our Studio Is Failing Its Students of Color": One Dancer's Experience of Racism and Microaggressions

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I recently spent a Saturday night with my husband and my 17-year-old dancing daughter, who sobbed at the foot of our bed. My daughter revealed her experiences with implicit bias and overt racism in school, and especially in the dance studio.

For six years, she has danced at a classical ballet school tied to the city's ballet company. The previous six years were spent at a mid-sized recreational/competition studio. I want to recount a few examples of the racism that my daughter shared that night.


Several years ago, her competition team was performing Disney's Peter Pan, already known for its racist imagery and narrative. My daughter was the only Black girl on the competition team and was cast as a Native American. While preparing for the competition, one of her teachers was braiding her hair as part of her costume, when this teacher exclaimed loudly that my daughter's freshly washed and flat-ironed hair was "greasy and nasty" and that she "had to go wash her hands after braiding her hair." I complained to the studio owner, who defended this teacher with the typical refrain, "she didn't mean anything by it." We left this studio a year later. That teacher—who had a litany of incidents displaying racist microaggressions toward the few dancers of color and bullying behavior toward other students—is still teaching at this studio today.

Next, my daughter walked into a less-than-welcoming atmosphere at her current classical ballet studio. As the school joined the American Ballet Theatre's Project Plié initiative (the purpose of which is to expand diversity and inclusion efforts at ballet schools around the country), a few teachers openly criticized the studio's efforts, demonstrating to their students of color their lack of commitment to the idea of diversity in ballet.

My daughter has been dismissed and ignored, given limited encouragement and few corrections. Other students—white students—have openly questioned why she received call-backs and why she was chosen for certain parts (which were few and far between). We asked for private lessons to improve her technique. We were told that the school "did not believe in private lessons" and that my daughter would only benefit from taking class with other dancers. However, we consistently watched as other dancers in the studio were offered private lessons.

Every year, there was some new rule change, like resetting the minimum level for joining the youth ballet. My daughter was consistently placed in the level just below the cut-off. Each year, my daughter watched students who were clearly not as skilled as she was promoted to the next level. She asked her teachers what she needed to work on to improve. Some simply ignored her request. Those who responded stated that she was a hard-worker, was technically proficient and was not behind. However, her placement and treatment were inconsistent with those statements. The teacher who had been the most unkind stated that she should not be "making excuses" for her placement, even though the conversation was phrased as "What can I work on to improve?" When my daughter received a high score on her ABT test, this same instructor pointed out in class that the ABT examiner "must have really liked you." She did not make the same statement to the white dancers who scored well.

In recent years, my daughter has begun to dread dance. She does not want to take certain teachers' classes and begs to skip on the days that they teach. She knows that she will be placed in a lower level, ignored in class, criticized for her body type and height, and told not to use her muscles (a common critique of Black dancers). She has asked to quit dance altogether. I continue to encourage her to work hard and improve, and they will not be able to deny her—advice that I honestly do not even believe anymore.

We have few options for classical ballet in our city, which is why we have chosen to stay. I have hired private teachers from outside of our studio. We have traveled outside of the state to attend summer intensive auditions held by other schools and companies. After spending time in privates and attending other summer intensives, my daughter has received comments from her teachers about how surprised they are at how much she has improved. Yet, her status never changes. She is not elevated. She is not nurtured. She is not supported. They have torn her down and depleted her confidence and self-worth. And then they tell her that she was not moved up because she lacks confidence—the very thing that they have taken away from her.

My beautiful dancing daughter with her long lines, gorgeous port de bras arms and high arabesque has been denied equal treatment in the dance world. She stated a couple of years ago, "It just seems like they want me to fail." At this point, I cannot disagree with her. As she enters her senior year of high school, I worry if she will get into a college dance program. I worry that she has already lost too much time to make up for what she did not receive from her studio.

Our studio is failing its students of color. Tolerating bullying teachers. Promoting one Black student as the poster child for the studio's commitment to diversity, while ignoring other promising students of color. Giving one-year scholarships to Project Plié students while not nurturing the growth and retention of all students of color.

My daughter sat sobbing at the foot of my bed because she has done everything right, yet the world that she loves and has embraced since she was 5 years old does not see her and does not love her back.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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