Where do top American ballet dancers come from?
Out of the 467 dancers in the top 7 American ballet companies, 158 were born outside of the United States (33.8%).
Elite ballet has been an international endeavor for a while. Competitions, international company auditions, and video auditions have allowed foreign-born talent to more effectively seek jobs in US companies. Let’s look at this particular group of dancers in more detail, shall we?
Differences in Gender and Company
More foreign men are recruited than foreign women (86 men to 77 women). Foreign-born dancers are also unequally distributed between ranks. Foreign-born dancers are slightly more likely to be a principal dancer than expected with 36 out of 94 principal dancers born in a different country (38% are principals when companies are 33% foreign born).
Hiring also varies by company. Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet actually employ more foreign-born dancers than US-born dancers while Houston Ballet has roughly equal numbers. As Balanchine is an American style of ballet, the two Balanchine companies – New York City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet – understandably have the lowest amounts of foreign-born dancers (less than 10% of the company). When Balanchine companies are excluded from analysis, the percentage of foreign-born dancers in top companies dramatically increases to 45.7%. As a result of this exclusion, foreign-born principals then outnumber US-born principal dancers 33 to 26. We can then conclude Non-Balanchine companies rely heavily on foreign dancers for their quality.
This information raises a lot of questions for me. Why are foreign-born male dancers hired at greater frequency than foreign-born female dancers? I also found foreign-born males more likely to be principal dancers than their US-born male counterparts. These numbers likely reflect the state of male ballet training the United States about a decade ago. Considering it takes about a decade to reach principal dancer status, the training from that era is more likely to impact the quality of current principal dancers. If we think the discrepancy is related to male training, is it an issue of the quality or quantity of US-born males auditioning? Maybe it’s both!
Which non-US countries are represented the most in top companies? Japanese-born dancers, specifically Japanese-born women, are the most represented. To the right, we can see the percentages of foreign-born dancers and how this compares to the percentage of immigrants in the US for each country. Shown here are the top 10 countries of origins in terms of largest numbers of dancers and Mexico. Out of over-represented countries, Japan has the greatest difference in percentages between the total foreign-born US population and foreign-born top dancers while China and Cuba have the least. Mexican-born dancers are greatly underrepresented with a difference of nearly 25%! These differences are obviously driven by the low number of Japanese immigrants and the high number of Mexican immigrants. Also, note Russian-born dancers don’t crack the top 10 countries in terms of number. While there are several prominent Russian-born dancers in American companies, it seems the ballet powerhouse keeps their talent to themselves for the most part.
The information here has some caveats. This data is based on birthplaces in dancer’s company profiles. Some newly joined dancers did not have this available – so they were excluded. And of course, being born in a different country doesn’t mean you aren’t a citizen or didn’t grow up here. Presumably, some of the dancers moved to and trained in the US when they were young.
The information touches on issues like diversity and representation in ballet, issues repeatedly subject to debate regarding their relevance to the art form. I think it would be interesting to compare this with data from companies like Royal Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet to see how the US compares. On a related note, an obvious missing aspect in this analysis is race. It would have been a bit tricky for me as I would have to assign a dancer’s race based on their head shots. Granted, ballet is visual so there maybe something to this visual categorization but it’s something I’m holding off on for now at least.
Of course, diversity is important. It matters who’s up on stage, who’s seen on Instagram. While I think American ballet does well relative to other countries, there is obviously room for improvement in engaging different racial and socioeconomic groups. If we really believe in the beauty of ballet, companies and dancers should be looking to expand audiences and engage communities. Thankfully, there are several individuals and organizations which have taken this mission to heart. It’s a complicated task but a necessary one. – J
P.S. We’re looking at median years spent in the company for each rank next. Hopefully it lets us estimate promotion times and how long you should wait for that promotion. Stay tuned!