Two ballerinas made history as the first Black and Latina professional dancers to play the leading role of Juliet at Ballet West, a ballet company based in Salt Lake City.
Ballet West premiered “Romeo and Juliet” on Feb. 11. The show continues through Feb. 19 with an additional performance in Park City, Utah on Feb. 26.
The achievements of these historical principal dancers, Katlyn Addison and Jenna Herrera, are examples of the advances and changes the world of traditional ballet is undergoing.
Since the beginning of ballet until well into the 20th century, several socioeconomic, political and cultural factors have made it almost impossible for people of color to join the world of ballet.
“Historically, ballet was a Eurocentric and elitist art form that developed in the royal European courts,” BYU professor of dance and ballerina Hilary Wolfley said. “As the art form evolved over the centuries, it became an expensive, exclusive pursuit that only some could afford. It cost a lot of money to train, to pay for the pointe shoes, the tutus.”
Ballet is a high-performance, demanding art form that also requires the training begin during the dancers’ childhood, so not all families are able to take the financial and time-consuming toll it creates.
“I was seven years old when I told my parents that I wanted to be a ballerina,” Herrera said. “It was not only a commitment for me, but for my whole family, as they had to drive for an hour to get me to class and had to pay $80 for each pair of pointe shoes I needed.”
The high price for dance classes, the needed materials and being able to pay to attend the shows has meant only certain demographics can afford to learn this style of dance. This has perpetuated a lack of representation of people of color in the art form.
“When people think of a typical ballet dancer, they think of the jewelry box ballerina,” Addison said. “And when people, especially children of color, are not seeing themselves as that ballerina, they think that it’s not for them.”
Addison, who in 2021 became the first Black ballerina to achieve her company’s highest rank of principal artist, explained how she experienced microaggressions during her career. She said there were times in her career other dancers with the same technique were chosen over her simply because of a matter of race.
“In ballet, we are so into tradition and into preserving how things have always been that we don’t always remember that we need to open up the idea of what ballet is and how it’s going to serve the dancers who are going to move the field forward, especially those dancers of color,” BYU associate professor of dance Shani Robison said.
About tights and shoe color
One of the most controversial factors demonstrating the inequality and lack of inclusivity in the world of ballet is the debate about the color of tights and shoes the dancers wear.
In the art of ballet, each element of the performers’ costumes contribute to fulfilling the function of elongating their figure while dancing. Since ballet has been traditionally dominated by white people, the color of tights and shoes dancers wore were pink and white, matching their complexion and skin color.
However, one shade doesn’t fit all of the ballerina’s different skin colors. Only recently have some professional ballet companies like Ballet West begun allowing their dancers to wear tights and pointe shoes the same color as their skin tone.
“Our director, Adam Sklute, made a change so that individual artists can choose what color shoes and tights they want to wear so that it matched their skin color and so that they too, can look aesthetically beautiful,” Herrera said.
The BYU ballet program implemented the change from traditional pink color to the skin color of the dancers just a few years ago.
According to the Department of Dance ballet area dress code, “flesh-colored tights and shoes may be worn as long as they are identical in shade. Otherwise, traditional pink tights and shoes are required.”
“Changes are beginning to take place, but it’s been a long road,” Robison said. “It only gets harder when there are some artistic ballet directors whose mentality is that ballet needs to be white.”
How ballet has and can become more accessible
Both Robison and Wolfley agree the last few years have been a time of change and moving forward for the world of ballet.
“The development and popularization of the internet and social media have made ballet a lot more accessible to people,” Wolfley said, referring to the sharing of videos and people taking up new hobbies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another change proven to be effective in other settings where there is a lack of diversity is the implementation of people of color in leadership positions.
“It will not only take a shift of mentality in the teachers, the artistic directors, the administration side and the audience’s side to make the ballet world more accessible, diverse and inclusive,” Addison said. “It will also take dancers like myself to actively become a choreographer or director to make a change and create more opportunities because my perspective will be different than that of a Caucasian.”
When asked about the effect playing the lead role of Juliet has had on them, both Addison and Herrera expressed their gratitude and sense of fulfillment for having earned something they worked so hard to accomplish.
“I hope to be a good example and that I can inspire not only a young dancer who looks like me, but any young dancer who wants to pursue ballet,” Addison said.