The Equity Project
June 18, 2020

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The National Ballet of Canada has been a participant in The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet since 2018. The project was convened by Dance Theatre of Harlem, The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) and Dance/USA. The project brings together a cohort of Artistic and Executive leaders from 21 North American large budget, professional ballet organizations for in-person meetings and coaching, with the purpose of increasing the presence of Blacks in ballet in all areas of the industry.

Supporting The Equity Project is a highly skilled team of consultants who bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise in classical ballet and undoing racism. Their holistic approach is designed to engage participants at the intersection of the history of ballet, broader systems of power and privilege, and practical tools for change.

One of the consultants on The Equity Project is Theresa Ruth Howard, Dancer, Dance Educator, Journalist, and Founder of MoBBallet.org (Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet). Ms. Howard has been working closely with the National Ballet’s leadership as the company works to implement a strategy for greater equity, diversity and inclusion. Recently Ms. Howard took the time to discuss The Equity Project, the work that is yet to be done, and the role that major ballet companies like the National Ballet have to play in making the performing arts world more equitable.

As you document on your website Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, the history of Black dancers in ballet is long. Why was it the right time to bring together The Equity Project?
There was a natural evolution of this building conversation that started with the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) ballet auditions and blossomed into The Equity Project. Virginia Johnson and Anna Glass from Dance Theatre of Harlem jumped off the momentum that IABD and I began with the ballet auditions we held for Black dancers to be seen by major ballet companies. That was the first time that the Artistic Directors had convened with that intention. It was an unprecedented opportunity – let’s have a meet and greet and lock the doors and basically force them into the conversation. The Dance Theatre of Harlem convening of ballet companies happened in 2018 based on that. It was supposed to be a one-off session. From there came the decision, that yes, they wanted to continue the learning and The Mellon Foundation agreed to fund it. It was understood that this work couldn’t be done once a year. The Design and Facilitation Team was charged with developing the curriculum for the three-year project.

Why was it so important to convene leadership from large budget North American professional ballet organizations and not just representatives?
I call it the triad of leadership - the three entities of the Artistic Director, the Executive Director and the Board of Directors - that’s the triad of change. You’re not going to change an organization without those people being involved and wanting, supporting and driving it. If you don’t have an Artistic Director who has an inclusive aesthetic in mind, then your company is not going to be inclusive. If you have a Board of Directors that is responsible for securing the funding for that organization but does not support inclusivity and diversity, then the Artistic Director’s hands can be tied and the Executive Director manages all of that. That’s why it’s important for the triad to be in alignment.

I think that’s when this work suffers, when there’s an inequity in the way people are supporting and engaging with it. It may be important to the degree of the outward facing public brand, but at the real core and heart of things it may not be true. 

Oftentimes there is the desire to change without changing. Or doing the small incremental things to give the illusion of change, like hiring more brown people to say ‘oh look at us we’re so brown,’ but then what you’re hearing is that those spaces don’t feel inclusive, people don’t feel heard, there’s not a feeling of belonging or ownership, or even access to that inner circle. In a way that becomes a conversation about tokenism. I always say that everything is going to look like tokenism until we tip the scales and there’s more equality across the board, but there can be tokenism in the way that your voice is used and heard or the way your body is used and heard.

Can you describe some of the areas of focus for The Equity Project and the activities in which the cohort participated?
At our initial convening we wanted to provide a toolbox for use throughout the journey that really went into equity, diversity and inclusion training 101. We talked about defining the elements of institutional racism and systemic racism and the mechanisms of that. Basically, getting our terms down – implicit bias, privilege, microaggressions – so that we could actually, in that room, which was predominantly white people, be on the same page about what we’re actually talking about and always tying it back to how it shows up specifically in the ballet world.

We did a segment on the history of Black people in ballet to a) illustrate the fact that we did and do exist in the field and b) to illustrate how institutional racism affects why we don’t have this representation in ballet today. That was very impactful to the cohort because it really did humanize the conversation. These were human beings and artists who were marginalized to the degree that you don’t even know who they are and you’re a ballet dancer. Then we start to realize that we know ballet history but, oh, we know white ballet history.

The third segment was on aesthetics and this is where we began to dismantle the belief that this Eurocentric art form and aesthetic is not exclusionary and that it’s not biased, dare I say racist. That was very difficult. We didn’t get very far. Not everybody was willing.

For the second convening we asked each company to send us headshots of their present company and we papered the walls with dancer photos and we got to really see, just in that room, what the field of ballet really looks like. We started to get into the inner workings of the organization and how you build programs, but we also took on colourism in terms of the aesthetics. When we were looking around the room at the walls and said, ‘find the Black men’, well you could find them. But where are the Black women? And right, that’s a little harder. So why is that? We opened up the history of that and started to humanize it. In those sessions we also began work on what we called the Framework; it’s a document that breaks down organizations by department and answers the question of what would be in place in the ideal situation: if we had arrived. For example, we talk about the pipeline and what are the elements we would need in the schools. Then we asked the cohort to add and expand on things and we started to refine them. There are things that just take heart, there are things that take time, there are things that take effort and there are things that take money.

Did anything surprise you about the process? Were there any surprising outcomes?
I’m one of the only people that has a really broad reach of this from the United States and Europe and I’m talking to dancers as much as I’m talking to the ballet school Directors as much as I’m talking to the Artistic Directors and sometimes Board Members, so I have a different comprehension of the actual field and where we are. So, I wasn’t surprised that there were people deep in this work for years and I wasn’t surprised that there were people who had never even thought about it. I wasn’t surprised at the blind spots because my dance background gave me insight into how the ballet mind works.

A non-ballet or art consultant is looking at this from a really different angle and the art can hide behind the art by saying ‘oh you don’t understand the opera, you don’t understand ballet, that doesn’t work.’ I can say, ‘no, that’s not really true.’ For instance, if you want to argue that pink tights is about uniformity, then are you going to argue that Dance Theatre of Harlem does not have a classic aesthetic? You must be able to have that intimate knowledge and that critical analysis of the actual field to be able to penetrate the tradition and the legacy of the gatekeepers. I’m able to understand it from a presenter’s point of view and I’m also able to be reasonable about how quickly things can move and how things move. Even though I’m a Black woman and I want to see this change I’m able to place realistic expectations on what that looks like.

Based on the experience with The Equity Project, what do you think that ballet leaders are currently empowered to do to make the ballet community a more equitable and diverse space?
I was surprised to learn that the efficacy and the progress of this work greatly hinged on that triad of leadership. When you have Artistic and Executive Directors who are strongly and powerfully aligned and are working together and pushing for it, they together can influence and move their Boards and they tend to be more effective. What I learned is that we can talk about the field, but the approaches to how we’re actually going to change the field really lies within each organization. I think that large organizations like New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and I put the National Ballet in there if these companies really actively dig in and start being very aggressive about this work and showing their work and being vocal about their work and I mean across leadership – I’m talking about Board Members, Executive Directors, Artistic Directors, being out there saying this is what we’re doing – then we start to have a shift. Then we see, ‘oh that’s what Board Members are supposed to be doing, that’s what Artistic Directors are supposed to be doing. I want to be like that.’ They need to believe it for themselves as individuals regardless of their title. Your organizational values have to be your personal values. It really is about being courageous.

Theresa Ruth Howard
Theresa Ruth Howard began her professional career with Philadelphia Civic Ballet Company. She was a dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and was a founding member of Armitage Gone! Dance. As a dance educator, Ms. Howard has been a member of The Ailey School's Ballet faculty for over 18 years and a faculty member at the Joffrey Ballet School (NY). She has taught at the American Dance Festival, Sarah Lawrence College, and was an artist in residence at Hollins University. She is a contributing editor to Dance Magazine and has written for Pointe, the Source and the Italian dance Magazine Expression. 

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