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.