Ballet West Revamps Policies To Make It More Equitable For Black And Brown Dancers
This fall, Ballet West announced changes intended to make it a more equitable place for its Black and brown dancers, from eliminating skin-paling makeup to having the company take on the work of dyeing ballet shoes and straps to match different skin tones. Jazz Bynum, a Black dancer in Ballet West’s second company, helped shape some of these new policies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: What kind of extra work does a dancer of color have to do that a white dancer doesn’t have to do?
Jazz Bynum: Dancers that choose to wear brown tights, we have to purchase brown tights, which is not an extra purchase, but we then have to buy a shoe dye for those pointe shoes. I remember even being younger, my mom and I would go back and forth to the store and in one change of season, we could have bought five different shades of a shoe dye until we found a shoe and a tight that matched perfectly.
When you're preparing for the stage, you also have to dye your straps on your costume. Depending on your hair texture and your hair length, that's even more prep. And for someone like me who has very curly and short hair, I have to prepare for my hair overnight. So instead of a white dancer [who] would be able to do their hair an hour prior to the show or 30 minutes prior to the show, mine would have to be done the night before.
CB: Tell me about how the conversation of changing Ballet West's policies came up.
JB: Right after everything started to blow up around George Floyd's death, Adam Sklute, our [artistic] director, reached out to us and sent out his condolences and sincerities about how we may have been dealing with the social climate of the country and everything that was happening.
He asked if we had anything to say about how Ballet West could improve with how they handled diversity, equity — anything of that nature. And I wrote a very lengthy email to him with things that I thought could be better with Ballet West. It’s microaggressions that happen on a daily basis that people don't necessarily realize that they're saying or doing.
CB: What are some of those examples of microaggressions?
JB: From colleagues, it's people noticing something that's different and then they make a comment on it. Once I did start wearing brown tights in the studio, a lot of people had comments about how great my line looked. Which is a big thing in ballet. You know, we create lines [with our bodies] constantly. [It was] a compliment, yes. But it's frustrating when you don't hear that from anyone when you’re wearing pink tights. It's like you change one little thing and then everyone has a comment about it.
From a staff standpoint, like in the costume department, it’s something just as simple as giving us the wrong nude undergarments for our costume. And then the brown dancer that's on stage is getting yelled at because something's wrong with their costume, which is out of their control.
CB: So after you sent in this feedback, where did Ballet West end up on these policies?
JB: In August, right around when our season was going to begin, Adam went through our entire manual. [He] talked about everything that they're going to be changing from stage makeup to behavior that's allowed, attire that's allowed, all those things, making sure everyone knew that everything that he had talked about changing and making right was now written and set in stone in an actual document.
Then we had a meeting with our costume department and the decision was made that everyone is going to be wearing tights that match their skin tone or as close as possible. We had a very lengthy discussion with the costume department about what each part of that looks like, and also letting them know that if we're going to be expected to do these things like dyeing our straps, that our costumes also have to be correct as well.
You know, all the things that have happened so far, the diligence and care that has been put into each of these decisions has been great, and I don't think anything has been done just to be done.
CB: What comes next in making ballet a more equitable place?
JB: Well, next, it would be holding each other accountable. Directors need to hold each other accountable for what they're putting out into the world, — who they're accepting into their companies — because there are all dancers of all races of all shades that are of caliber for what different directors want to hire.
And then on top of that, we all — whether in the dance world or the real world — need to hold each other accountable with what we're saying to each other and just being aware of the comments that we're making. I think now that this discussion has started, now we need to continue to move forward, advocating for ourselves and knowing that this fear that has built up over time of not being able to speak up to our directors and artistic staff — we can grow past that fear and we can speak up for ourselves. And I'm very optimistic about where we will go.