There have been very few successful Black ballet dancers — not just in America — but across the globe, and the few that manage to break through the formidable world of White ballerinas are easily forgotten.
It is against this backdrop of apparent discrimination that Theresa Ruth Howard, a former member of the Dance Theater of Harlem, decided to develop Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet), a digital museum designed to celebrate the work of past and present Black ballet dancers.
“The contribution and achievements of Black ballet dancers have always been poorly documented and preserved, to begin with, having never enjoyed equity of importance or reporting,” Howard said in an interview.
According to Howard, the fact that great Black ballerinas, such as Christina Johnson, Lowell Smith, and Donald Williams, go unnoticed is insulting and makes the cannon incomplete.
Howard, a celebrated ballet dancer and journalist, hopes to use MoBBallet to revive memorable events in the history of Black ballet going as far back as 1919.
“I wanted to show that Black ballet dancers are not unicorns, there is not just ONE, there are hundreds. I wanted to make the invisible visible,” she added.
Howard’s motivation to create the digital museum came from her desire to provide a source of inspiration and dialogue that will ultimately give Black ballet dancers the kind of representation they deserve.
With MoBBallet, Howard hopes to bring equity in to the world of ballet where everyone will be fairly represented regardless of their body size, shape, and the color of their skin, so young and upcoming ballet dancers will have people to identify with and aspire to.
By representing the true history of ballet, MoBBallet will “change the perception of who does ballet, who should do ballet and what ballet looks like,” Howard adds.
Long History of Discrimination
Across the world, many ballet specialists acknowledge that there has been protracted discrimination against Black ballet dancers. A good example is the English National Ballet, where out of 64 dancers, only two are Black.
According to Luke Jennings, a dance critic and author, the outright discrimination against qualified Black dancers is both illegal and outdated in the modern ballet world.
He asserts, however, that perhaps the apparent discrimination is prompted by the fact that there are very few Black kids that are interested in training for classical ballet.
Others argue that White skin in ballet is not just the norm but the uniform.