class divide ballet elitism

Ballet: a perception of elitism, classism and exclusivity

As a non-dancer, I have always conceived of ballet as a stereotypically upper-class style of dance, watched and performed by elite dancers that have spent copious amounts of money on training. However, this is a pretty unfair judgement of the dance and in recent years, many ballet companies have made marked efforts to diversify. Whereas it was for many years considered something very feminine that only little girls did, this stereotype has been heavily broken down, aided heavily by the widespread popularity of ‘Billy Elliott’. 

In a recent interview with The Guardian, ballet dancer Marcelino Sambé discussed how he overcame class and race barriers to become a successful ballet dancer and what the industry can do to ensure it only becomes more diverse in the future. “What matters is that ballet should not just be for elite kids from well-fed families” said Sambé. Born in a poor area of Lisbon, Sambé is a shining example of why people from any background can, and should, try ballet. His experience and the encouragement he received from community centres and teachers who told him to follow his dreams changed his life. 

Community centres can provide disadvantaged young people like Sambé with the opportunity to escape from the hardships of daily life and also the confidence to pursue a career that may not necessarily be the norm for someone’s family. A psychologist at Sambé’s community centre was the one who suggested that Sambé could take dance seriously. Individuals and teachers have the biggest impact on raising aspirations of disadvantaged young people. They really can change the lives of those who hadn’t previously considered dance a viable opportunity for them.

To me, ballet seems to have real problems with elitism and classism for several reasons

Sambé really is a shining example of how anyone can make it in the industry. He is only the second black male dancer to reach the Royal Ballet’s top ranks. His experience of immigrant identity in the neighbourhood he was raised in was what got him a place in the Royal Ballet, as African dance captured the attention of the judges.

To me, ballet seems to have real problematic associations with elitism and classism for several reasons. The culture that promotes ballet both as a hobby and career option relies on a certain amount of wealth to be able to afford lessons and training. Whilst there are a growing number of scholarships available to young dancers and programmes that give opportunities, the fundamental costs involved in becoming a professional ballerina are extensive. 

Ballet is also stereotypically seen as an upper-class hobby. Going to the ballet or opera has traditionally been something done by the elites and it has been difficult for this reputation to fall away. Working class and disadvantaged people don’t necessarily get involved with it. Tied in with ideas of ballet being dominated by upper class and elite interests is the idea that ballet needs to do more to appeal to a more diverse profile of race and genders. It has definitely done more in recent years, offering scholarships and reaching out to people of colour, and trying to include more men. 

Elitism is a wider issue in the arts industry. Anyone can look to this year’s list of Oscar nominations and see a lack of representation of women, people of colour and different sexualities. In order to make arts activities like ballet more accessible, community centres and programmes in disadvantaged areas that provide the encouragement young people need are what is necessary. As was clearly evident in Sambé’s case, having a teacher who motivates you to follow your ambitions can make a world of difference. 

Elite young people are exposed to fine art forms like ballet from an early age

A wider variety of accessible dance programmes need to be offered, as music and arts lessons can be a heavy burden on working class parents and those who can’t afford what is often not viewed as a necessity. Government funding for arts programmes in schools is consistently cut year after year. Making the industry and audition processes for elite ballet schools seem friendlier to young people who don’t come from privileged backgrounds must also be a priority. Elite young people are exposed to fine art forms like ballet from an early age, but this just isn’t always the case for disadvantaged parents who can’t afford to take their kids to ballet shows. 

Having ballet teachers who understand what it is like to be from an underprivileged background or understand the experience of a person of colour can widen participation, and help parents to better appreciate the value of dance. They also know how to be more lenient with students who can’t afford brand new equipment, and whose parents may not be able to make competitions. 

Ballet, and most forms of dance or arts activity, can have countless benefits for those who take part in it from an early age. For those who have grown up in disadvantaged situations, it can change their lives and allow them to move away from the world in which they grew up. Whilst the world of fine arts like ballet has done so much in recent years to encourage a diverse variety of genders and races to take part, there is still far for the industry to go in widening participation for students from lower income and BAME backgrounds. 

Comments (1)

  • Chrissie Parrott

    Hello Lucy
    I’m fascinated by this article
    I’ve been fortunate to have had a career as a professional ballet and contemporary dancer
    Now a choreographer My work has been called irreverent
    but popular and successful
    I came from a working class ( proletariat) background
    and have carried this with me as I had to navigate my way through this elitist every day quandary
    We know that historically to be allowed to perform in the courts of the french upper class one had be of ‘good breeding ‘
    and so
    It goes that this is still the norm
    I take on board the facts that political correctness there are a few More opportunities for people from various backgrounds are somehow permitted the fortune to become a ballet dancer however the ballets that are performed are still elitist in style and social outlook
    So my works are often making statements About class although Mostly somewhat hidden the gaps
    Theme and design seem to show the upper classes with a clash of wealth and poverty
    I admit that with a lack of formal (capitalist ) education
    my writing skills are lacking so excuse my clumsiness
    So here I am lost for words
    I see Professional ballet dancers whether employed full or part time often unable to afford the lifestyle (and attend the theatre opera or dance Performances for other companies that affords their employment) .. the elite whose want to attend the ballet Is often About Seen to be seen At opening nights often without a thought of the real history of ballets origins
    Some next work is called Facade it looks at the masking thats used by patrons who feel the need to show their wealth in order to fit the masquerade
    So I in turn have masked the work as a shabby and irreverent look at the 1800’s
    A vaudeville style work that people find hilarious
    My quest now as I restage this work is to weave the proletariat and bourgeois and find a balance that opens up the debate

    I’m going to stop there ….

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