International Dance Day is celebrated by dancers and dance enthusiasts all around the world on April 29th. The commemorative date was initiated in 1982 by the Dance Committee of the UNESCO International Theatre Institute, in order to praise the art of dance and honor Jean-Georges Noverre, a distinguished choreographer that innovated in ballet production. Dance is a form of art, a form of expressing yourself and finding a voice where there aren’t any words.
Although there are many dance styles to choose from – like jazz, hiphop, contemporary or tap – it is often associated with ballet! When thinking of dance many people imagine perfect ballerinas, with tutus, pointe shoes and buns, however, the genre goes beyond those classic elements, it is shaped within the time we are living, going through constant changes.
Ballet used to be elitist, European and exclusive, but, as time passed by, these rules were bent – although there’s still a long way to go. Many dancers have made it their life mission to turn ballet into a more inclusive art form. So, Her Campus Casper Libero gathered a few of these incredible ballerinas who are changing the face of ballet. Check it out!
- Misty Copeland
In 2012, Olivia Goldhill and Sarah Marsh wrote in The Guardian that ballet is “a world where dancers cake their limbs in white powder and performers with darker skin don’t always feel welcome”.
Fortunately, dance companies have not taken the issue lightly and have enforced the necessity of having diversity in their casting, and when Misty Copeland entered the stage, she became an icon to many dancers.
In 2007, she became the third African American female soloist at the American Ballet Theater, one of the main ballet companies in the USA. At the time, it was rare to see other ethnicities dancing major roles like the White Swan, and Misty fought for her spot, from being a member of the corpse of ballet to becoming a soloist.
However, that wasn’t her only big achievement, she also gained the title of Prima Ballerina of the ABT in 2015. Not only receiving the highest privilege position in the world of ballet, she was also the first black Prima Ballerina in the 75 years of the company’s history.
Therefore, Copeland opened many doors for dancers who could only dream of achieving such a prestigious role. The American ballet dancer has made several interviews talking about the big issue of racism in the industry and even released her own book Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, in which she states: “It’s weird for minorities even just to buy tickets to the ballet. We feel like it’s not a part of our lives and we’re not a part of that world”.
Misty also tackles another big issue in the dancing community: body representativity. It is common, mostly in ballet productions, for casting directors to choose only dancers who fit a certain ballerina stereotype – skinny and without curves. However, Misty was able to overcome the obstacles with her curvy body and showed that ballet is not an expression of art that demands a certain body type for it to be beautiful and worthy of admiration.
Some of her notable performances are: The Firebird (2012); Gulnare, in Le Corsaire (2013); Swanilda, in Coppélia (2014), and the dual lead role, Odette/Odile, in Swan Lake (2014). She also landed a role in the Walt Disney Production The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, released in 2018.
“It’s such a traditional and historic art form that people are afraid to change it. They’re afraid for it to grow. But I think it has to if it’s going to last in the world we live in today. It’s hard to change someone’s ideas when they might not even really consciously know that they’re being racist, or have racist ideas, just because ballet has been this way for hundreds of years” – Misty Copeland for The CUT
- Yuan Yuan Tan
Yuan Yuan Tan is one of San Francisco Ballet’s most stunning classical dancers, who overcame the adversities of ballet stereotypes and is currently one of the main ballerinas of the company. She joined the SFB as a soloist in 1995, becoming the youngest to get lead roles in the company’s history. She was also the first Chinese dancer to be promoted to that level, therefore being a big inspiration for Asian ballerinas, who had been excluded from big roles. The Asian culture in ballet is mostly prone to stereotypical treatment. As an example, there is the Nutcracker’s Chinese Tea Act, which fails to represent the culture appropriately.
She has danced lead roles in works such as Giselle, Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Don Quixote, Morris’ Sylvia, Othello and The Little Mermaid. The most inspiring of all, is that she achieved most of the during her time in the SFB, and one of her most iconic roles is one that people love and adore: Odette in Swan Lake! Tan also received a gold medal and the Nijinsky Award at the 1st Japan International Ballet and Modern Dance Competition, in 1993, and a gold medal at the 5th International Ballet Competition in Paris, France.
However, Yuan has brought to light a big issue in the dance world. She revealed that, to be accepted in the company, she was asked to gain five to six pounds in order to achieve the perfect body type. Although she had to shape herself to achieve her position, she proved everyone wrong by being one of the ballerinas that has achieved longevity in the company, due to her physical strength and power. To this day, she dances for the San Francisco Ballet and the city’s Mayor, London Breed, declared February 13th as Yuan Yuan Tan Day, due to her completing more than 20 years in the company.
“My Chinese side comes out in my dancing. There’s a certain in-the-moment sentimentality, an appreciation for the smallest details” – Yuan Yuan Tan
- Vitória Bueno
Although she may be new to the dance world’s eyes, Vitória Bueno has conquered hearts at only 18 years old and is gaining space in the international scene! Vitória is a Brazilian dancer born in Minas Gerais, who has defeated the adversities and become an amazing dancer, by embracing her disability and dancing with grace and passion.
Due to a congenital malformation, she was born without both arms. However, she has stated that she doesn’t miss having them, because she can’t miss what she never had. She just learned to do everything with her feet, which allowed her to become such a strong dancer.
She was introduced to ballet in her early days by one of her physiotherapists, at only 5 years old, because she believed she could have a promising future in the activity. Since then, she fell in love with dancing and never stopped. The movements that are done with the arms, she mainly adapts them and follows the rhythm with her head, and has even described the feeling as having imaginary arms.
Her talent is undeniable, she achieved golden medals in every exam from the Royal Ballet School – one of the most prestigious teaching methodologies in the world of ballet.
She was also a part of a German talent show and made it to the finals as the only Brazilian contestant! She danced a ballet choreography with some Brazilian inspirations. In the middle of her presentation she changed out of her tutu and started dancing the traditional samba with her beautiful pointe shoes. Vitória did not win the competition, but she did win many foreign hearts out there and proved that there is no condition that can take you away from the dream of dancing!
“I do ballet, jazz and tap dance. Everyone asks me which one I like best, but I like them all. It’s kind of like a son, you can’t pick a favorite. Each of them has a different connection to my body” – Vitória Bueno for Capricho
- Kathleen McGuire
Ballet is often associated with perfectionism, not a single finger can be out of line and every step has to be executed to perfection. That leads dancers to fall in a cycle of lack of trust in themselves and in their art. That scenario is constantly represented in pop culture, like in the movie Black Swan (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky, that follows the journey through the psyche of a young ballerina who strives for perfection and is led to craziness when she wins the main role in a production of Swan Lake. Therefore, mental health has become an important topic within the dance community, and Kathleen McGuire has become the perfect advocate for the cause.
McGuire trained in the pre-professional division of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater School and the San Francisco Ballet School. The ballerina is passionate about dancers’ mental health and founded Minding the Gap, a social organization dedicated to seeing mental health in dance culture. She shared her own experience with depression in an article in Dance Magazine – one of the most read in the history of the magazine.
Kathleen studied the art of ballet for years. However, she quit after believing she wasn’t strong enough to continue in the field. Even though she felt defeated, McGuire now understands that the reason she stopped dancing were her experiences with depression and not having enough tools to deal with it.
“Dance institutions are failing their dancers with a lack of support for mental health. But I believe that small steps can move this industry in the right direction” – Kathleen McGuire, for Dance Magazine
The dance world has had many ups and downs, but it is wonderful to see that dancers can now dance in stages without having their experiences cut short or being excluded from productions due to their skin color, weight and even age. Ballet has its arms open for anyone that has love and passion.
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