Note from BW of Brazil: People who are out-of-touch with how this global system works love to say that, with black people, it’s always about race, clearly attempting to diminish the reality of white domination in so many areas of life. When people say these things, I often wonder, have the really done the research or are such opinions just ignorance, unfamiliarity with the facts, or a refusal to admit something that is blatantly obvious? Brazil has long prided itself on boasting that “we never had legalized segregation” as in Jim Crow United States of Apartheid South Africa. But the way I see it, racism is therefore worse in Brazil because in the the US and SA, at least these countries blatantly acknowledged separate and unequal experiences and treatment for different racial groups. Brazil, on the hand, long declared that all Brazilian are equal regardless of race or color while openly practicing the same type of racial exclusion as the two countries they often attempted to favorably compare themselves to. Be sure to check the archives for countless examples of this type of racial exclusion and/or attitudes that lead to this sort of inequality.
Classical dance/ballet is one of those areas in which black Brazilians are deemed to be out of “their place”. Similar to black women being thought only to be fit to sing samba (see here, here or here), if the question is dance, samba is again where black women’s talents are thought to be a natural fit. And what if their aspirations are to perform in Jazz or Classical/Ballet? Basically, the response is, “Sorry, you don’t have the body type; this type of dance is for the white girls.” Don’t believe it? Well, check out a few ballet recitals and count the black bodies or talk to a few black ballet dancers in Brazil. It’s really not a secret. Ballerina Rejane Duarte will tell you same thing in the piece below.
‘Black dancers have more work outside Brazil,’ says Rejane Duarte
By Paula Sperb
Once an attraction more closely related to nobility, ballet is still considered by many to be an elitist cultural product even centuries after its emergence.
This is reinforced by the fact that dancers are mostly white, including in Brazil, a country where 55% of the population declares itself being black or brown, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2016.
“Ballet is a very aristocratic art, it started like that and it stayed that way. There was always the idea that black women didn’t have the ideal body of a ballerina, that they didn’t have the same aptitude for movements of precision and lightness. They are misplaced visions, but they continue to be perpetuated. The number of blacks in the ballet is still small,” says Rejane Duarte, 45.
The Brazilian dancer has lived in the United States for 20 years. She joined the Dance Theater of Harlem in New York, the world’s first black classical ballet company. In 2009, ten years after Duarte, another Brazilian joined the company, the Rio native Ingrid Silva. The group emerged in 1969 on the initiative of Arthur Mitchell, the first black dancer of the New York City Ballet, later promoted to lead dancer by the Russian George Balanchine.
“I worked hard, I danced the entire repertoire and managed to become a principal dancer. There, I knew I was the only one, but I felt it represented something bigger,” he told Folha de S.Paulo in a 1995 interview – he died in 2018. Mitchell decided to found the group after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. In Brazil, Mitchell helped create the Ballet Nacional in the 1960s.
Rejane Duarte, who worked with Mitchell, returned to her hometown to select dancers for scholarships at the Dance Theater of Harlem during the second edition of FIDPOA (Festival Internacional de Dança de Porto Alegre or International Dance Festival of Porto Alegre), which ran until June 15. As a juror, she hopes to find black talents among the 1,500 dancers from all over Brazil enrolled in the event that serves as showcase for scholarship competition in countries like France, Germany and China.
The festival is promoted by Ballet Vera Bublitz, which completed its 40th year, where Duarte graduated as a dancer and had her first job as a ballet teacher until she moved to New York. At school, she was the only menina negra (black girl). So she believes that if she had stayed in Brazil, she would not have had the same opportunities. She is currently offstage.
“Racial prejudice is veiled. It’s an old prejudiced mentality that people don’t like to admit. The truth has to be said. Bailarinos negros (black ballerinas) get more work outside of the country than in Brazil. There is something wrong here,” says Duarte.
When she arrived in Harlem, a black New York neighborhood, she says she felt comfortable. There, she wasn’t the only black woman to dance ballet. She switched from pink tights and pointe shoes to brown hand-painted accessories. The items are traditionally light to resemble the white skin of most dancers.
“Until today I have to paint (them) because the brand I use doesn’t manufacture another color. They claim that the demand is small, but this only reflects the reality of blacks as a minority in the ballet,” she says.
With the company, she presented several repertoires around the world. Among them “The Prodigal Son”, choreographed by Balanchine, and an African-American version of the classic “Giselle.”
“It’s very sad when I say that I’m a dancer and people say, ‘cool, you dance samba!’. Só porque sou negra (just because I’m black). This is not going to change overnight. We have to hit the same key, even if someone finds it tiring. There’s been over 400 years of white ballet,” she says.