Though critics have debated the gendered ideologies at work in the ballet book genre, discussion so far has overlooked how race shapes the meanings of such stories and the ways that stereotypes about black females have caused them to be excluded from representation in both the world of classical dance and ballet stories. This essay provides a close textual analysis of seven recent picture books about black ballerinas that counter this history and employ the figure of the ballerina in ways that challenge social constructions of black female embodiment. While stories about black ballerinas share with the larger ballet book genre a sometimes troubling construction of femininity, they simultaneously embody the affirmative tradition of African American literature by asserting the beauty and competency of black girls and challenging what Patricia Hill Collins calls “controlling images” of black femininity.
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Although in the early 20th century black female dancers like Josephine Baker and dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham were widely successful, black women have been excluded from white classical dance companies. The few who did perform with white companies, like Raven Wilkinson, who danced in Europe with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the fifties, and Janet Collins, the first African American prima ballerina to dance full-time at the Met, were required to paint their faces white in order to dance for white ballet companies (Collins declined) (Yaël Tamar Lewin and Janet Collins, 2011; Gottschild, 2012). In the contemporary period, only a handful of black female dancers like Misty Copeland (ABT), are working professionally in white companies in the US (Fisher, 2016, p. 586). Most opportunities for black performers have occurred outside the country or in black companies, like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Philadanco, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Cleo Parker Dance Ensemble, which do not offer a classical repertoire. Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, is an exception. However, the company has struggled to stay afloat financially and has never enjoyed the status of white companies such as the ABT, NYCB, or San Francisco Ballet, with some dancers perceiving it as limiting (David Johns, 2008; Carrie Seidman, 2012).
Since themes that are unique to African American culture may not be understood by cultural outsiders (Nancy Tolson, 2008), some critics categorize only those works written by and for African Americans as African American literature (Wanda Brooks and Jonda C. McNair, 2009). However, other critics point to the ways that works written by cultural outsiders have been perceived as authentic by insiders (Henry Louis Gates, 2003). This study thus considers all books featuring a black female central protagonist, regardless of their authorship.
At the same time, Sassy’s mother reassures her brother Hughie that his larger forehead is “a sign of intelligence.” The book presents beauty as the most important concern for girls while coding intelligence as a male quality.
Although Knights counts several characters of Asian descent, she notes only one black dancer appearing in an illustration of book 19 of the Magic Ballerina series. According to Knights, even books like those by Arlene Philips, which celebrate alternative dance styles like salsa, feature quest narratives in which British heroines “rescue” different modes of dance and reinforce “colonialist narratives of cultural supremacy” (p. 100).
Interestingly, of the few boys at Sassy’s school, the one who is shown most often is a dark-skinned male dancer. His presence recalls the difference in opportunities afforded to black men relative to black women in ballet. Black male dancers like Arthur Mitchell were able to break through as principal dancers at white American companies even in the fifties and sixties, while black women were excluded (Gottschild 2012; Johns, 2008). Some explanations for why skin color has been less limiting to black male dancers are that stereotypes of black men as “superperformers” doesn’t upset the status of “white woman as object femininity,” as well as the shortage of male dancers in general (McCarthy-Brown, 2011, p. 397).
Ballet is expensive. Outside the costs of lessons, there are competition and travel costs. Costumes are costly, and pointe shoes can cost up to eighty dollars a pair, with dancers going through multiple pairs on a weekly or even daily basis.
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Dawn Heinecken is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Louisville. Her publications focus on representations of gender in popular culture with an emphasis on visual and social media as well as children’s literature.
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Heinecken, D. Contesting Controlling Images: The Black Ballerina in Children’s Picture Books. Child Lit Educ 50, 297–314 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-018-9345-y
- Children’s literature
- White supremacy
- Controlling images