The Missing 53: Black Representation in Ballet

How many Black ballet dancers are there in American ballet?

While American ballet companies employ a large number of international dancers, ballet has been criticized for a lack of diversity, specifically regarding Black dancers. While increasingly discussed in articles and opinion pieces, ballet insiders are aware that this issue has been persistent. Written pieces raise awareness of this issue but typically lack comprehensive, industry-wide statistics, percentages, and metrics to fully characterize the Black experience in ballet. Tracking progress on this front requires systematic study. By developing metrics which solely rely on publicly available data, we gain a rudimentary tool to track the progress of American ballet forward into the future.

Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MOBBallet; https://mobballet.org/) seeks to amplify the voices and history of Black ballet dancers. The initiative maintains a list of current and past Black ballet dancers – the Roll Call (https://mobballet.org/index.php/impact/). By combining the Roll Call with Data Pointes’ data from the 2019 – 2020 rosters of 26 ballet companies, we can quantitatively study Black representation in ballet. Together, Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet’s publicly available Roll Call provides the numerator while the Data Pointes database provides the denominator. Our findings reveal the “Missing 53” – the approximate number of Black dancers needed to mend the disparity in Black representation.

Results

Between the 2018 – 2019 and 2019 – 2020 Seasons, no additional Black dancers (dancers appearing on the Roll Call) were hired to the top 7 US ballet companies ranked by domestic operating budget (American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and The Joffrey Ballet). Additionally, no Black dancers employed by the top 7 were fired between seasons. The sole change in the number of listed dancers was due to the firing and reinstatement of Amar Ramasar for the 2019 – 2020 season. As these events occurred within the seasons, he was included in the calculations below. Analysis includes all ranks (unranked, apprentices, corps, all soloist tiers, and principals).

% Black Dancers in the top 7 for both the 2018 – 2019 and 2019 – 2020 Seasons = 31/467 = 6.63%

% Female Black Dancers of all Female Dancers in the top 7 (2018 – 2020) = 14/254 = 5.51%

% Male Black Dancers of all Male Dancers in the top 7 (2018 – 2020) = 17/213 = 7.98%

We repeated these calculations for the top 25 US ballet companies by domestic operating budgets and Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH; not in the top 25) for Season 2019 – 2020. Analysis only includes unranked dancers, corps, all soloist tiers, and principals due to incomplete data on apprentices and second companies. Guest principals were also excluded.

% Black Dancers in the top 25 + DTH for 2019 – 2020 Season = 67/1000 = 6.70%

% Female Black Dancers of all Female Dancers in the top 25 + DTH (2019 – 2020) = 30/535 = 5.61%

% Male Black Dancers of all Male Dancers in the top 25 + DTH (2019 – 2020) = 37/465 = 7.96%

Finally, we calculated these estimates with only the top 25 companies ranked by domestic operating budgets (with Dance Theater of Harlem removed).

% Black Dancers in the top 25 for 2019 – 2020 Season = 54/981 = 5.50%

% Female Black Dancers of all Female Dancers in the top 25 (2019 – 2020) = 24/526 = 4.56%

% Male Black Dancers of all Male Dancers in the top 25 (2019 – 2020) = 30/455 = 6.59%

Assessing the relationship between Black identity and rank in the top 25 companies and Dance Theater of Harlem. A Chi Square Test of Independence was performed to see if being Black and company rank of dancers were independent. Conditions to run a Chi Square test were met as all expected counts were greater than 5. A statistically significant relationship between being Black and rank was observed – X2 (df = 3, N = 1000) = 9.08, p = 0.02822.

Table 1. Observed and expected counts for the Chi Square Test of Independence. The “Unranked” category refers to dancers employed by companies without formal ranking. The soloist category is an aggregate of all soloist ranks (demi-soloist, second soloist, first soloist, etc.)

Fewer Black principal dancers are observed than expected if race and rank were independent. Additionally, more Black unranked dancers are observed than would be expected (likely driven by Dance Theatre of Harlem which employs more Black ballet dancers than any other included company and has an unranked company structure).

However, post-hoc tests with Bonferroni correction did not yield any statistically significant ranks. Due to the small size of the study population (Black ballet dancers in the 26 American ballet companies examined) and how racial identity was determined for this study, the significance of these results are inconclusive and warrant additional studies to understand the relationship between Black identity and rank in ballet companies.

Discussion

Consider how these percentages relate to the Black or African American population in the US. While self-reported Black or African American individuals make up roughly 12% of the US population according to the 2010 US Census, the estimates presented (roughly 7%) fall below this value. With 1000 main company dancers in the 26 companies analyzed, there should be 120 Black ballet dancers for Black representation in ballet to match overall US demographic data. With only 67 Black dancers in the 26 companies, there would need to be 53 additional Black dancers employed to make up the deficit – the “Missing 53”.

There was variability in numbers of Black dancers based on gender and company. In all samples, male Black representation is greater than female Black representation. Additionally, the inclusion of Dance Theater of Harlem greatly increased the percentage of Black dancers within the sample. Results indicated highly variable levels of Black representation between companies with some employing no Black dancers, limiting the visibility of Black dancers among certain audiences.

The top 25 companies represent a significant portion of American ballet, servicing a majority of American ballet’s audiences. To our knowledge, these estimates are the most comprehensive and current estimates of Black representation in ballet available. Longitudinal tracking of these metrics will improve transparency for the American ballet industry as a whole and assess retention of Black artists through the ballet pipeline.

However, these results have several caveats. The MOBBallet Roll Call utilizes a mix of voluntary and crowd-sourced reports to include dancers on the list. Consequently, some dancers who self identify as Black and are in one of the 26 companies may be miscategorized, particularly if dancers are unaware of the initiative. Additionally, the mixed nature of the Roll Call combines self-reported and perceived race, complicating understanding of results. Perceived race, how others classify an individual’s race, is particularly important due to the visual nature of ballet but may overlook complexities of racial identity for which self-report accounts. Development of comprehensive surveys to study Black representation in ballet will be better suited to address these particular shortcomings.

Finally, second companies and apprentices were excluded from analysis due to missing data. As some of the least visible positions within a ballet company, these ranks represent important milestones in the ballet pipeline – serving as trial periods for retention in the corps. These ranks are the most variable from season to season and likely include Black dancers yet to be added to the Roll Call, potentially biasing the estimate downwards. Limiting analysis to higher ranks partially addresses these issues.

Overall, these caveats suggest the produced estimates slightly underestimate Black representation.

Methods

The top 7 and top 25 ballet companies were determined using Dance Data Project®’s 2018-2019 Season Overview report (http://www.dancedataproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/July-2019-2018-2019-Season-Overview.pdf). These rankings were determined by domestic operating budgets (“as measured by annual expenditures reported in publicly-released Forms 990”). For both the top 7 and 26 companies (top 25 + Dance Theater of Harlem), Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was excluded from the analysis as they are not marketed as a ballet company. Ballet dancer’s names, genders, and ranks were obtained from company biographies accessed on either January 1st, 2019 or January 1st, 2020 (Dance Theater of Harlem’s data was accessed on June 1st, 2020).

The Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet Roll Call was used as a variable to identify potentially Black or African American ballet dancers. When cross-referencing Roll Call names with names from company rosters, string distance-based fuzzy matching and manual curation were used to account for name discrepancies (typos, inclusion of middle names, and punctuation). Some dancers in the 26 American companies share the same name – there are two Amanda Morgans and two Kyle Davises. As both “Amanda Morgan” and “Kyle Davis” are listed on the Roll Call, only one of each was included in the count towards Black dancers.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet and Dance Data Project® for their research and commitment to the ballet community.

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