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Taking advantage of workplace diversity: the ballerina’s story

This is a serious situation and one in which talent often feels side-lined or even unwelcome

For those unsure of their position in their company due to their skin colour, there is no better person to look towards than Stephanie Rae Williams; in addition, employers should take note of her story.

For employees who feel their race or ethnicity is a minority in their workplace, there are many questions they ask themselves. Do others see me first as my race and second as my position? Am I expected to represent my entire race in a company meeting? How do I find a mentor I can relate to, or others to mentor who can best use my experience?

Standing out from the crowd

Williams, who is a biracial American, started ballet school when she was eight. From her very first steps, she realised she was the only non-white child in the class. Her ballet school was located in Houston, Texas, which is not an area considered particularly white; however, ballet as an art form does not have the same reputation.

The prima ballerina tells how there were three black girls in the school in total; however, all were older. Furthermore, as she was bi-racial, there was a sense that she did not belong to either group. As Williams puts it, she did not want to belong to a racial group in this context – she was here only for the ballet.

Unable to capitalise on diversity

American ballet is overwhelmingly white. For that matter, so is Russian and French ballet and – to a lesser extent – the Royal Ballet. Whiteness is applauded as beauty in ballet. Ballerinas don’t sunbathe. Aficionados speak of how the light bounces off a ballerina’s porcelain skin.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), however, has always professed that this specification and preference is meaningless to the art of ballet. DTH has had black principal ballerinas since the beginning. Not that this means it has an army of black ballerinas battering down their doors, of course. Black ballerinas face so much prejudice so early in their careers that most give up before becoming professional.

Williams remembers clearly how her teachers assumed she would follow a contemporary dance route rather than classical ballet. Most directors considered her frame simply too muscular. Once she started performing, the constructive criticism she received seemed vaguely racist. Directors would complain that she was too noticeable, that her skin colour made her stick out. In a stage full of white bodies, she always looked different.
Don’t let talent slip away

Eventually, Williams joined the DTH. In the years that followed, she earned the highest accolades. Her identity as an incredibly strong dancer who can persevere and recover from injuries has made her famous.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem has reaped the rewards from her success and has become internationally renowned; however, why should DTH be the only company where an excellent and talented prima ballerina can flourish? These are the same questions every company should ask itself when looking at diversity in its workforce.

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