Exploring ballet: Ballerina’s journey toward diversifying the art form

Black History Month

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) – The progress may be slow but there is growing diversity among the many faces in the world of ballet.

Kimberly Marie Olivier was drawn to dance at the age of four.

In New York, she found herself in a studio full of girls that looked like her, they were Latin American and she was almost always one of the only African American ballerinas in the room.

Moving west to San Francisco at 17-years-old, she continued to stand out for more than technique.

“That was when I realized I was the only one usually, the only Black ballet dancer it was predominantly white,” Olivier said. 

There are now three dancers at the San Francisco Ballet Company of African descent but Olivier is still the only African American woman representing her community.

“I definitely felt under obligation to represent my race because there are so many disparities. I wanted to bring hope to other dancers that didn’t see anyone that looked like them,” Olivier said.

While there have been Black ballerinas emerging in the field over the years, the principal role is still rarely filled by an African American woman.

It was just seven years ago that Misty Copeland was given that chance at the American Ballet Theatre in New York, making headlines and her own Barbie.

Datausa.io reports, in 2017 there were just 2.5% of Black women who got a Bachelor’s degree in ballet compared to 59% of white women.

Toni Wilson with the San Francisco Ballet explains socioeconomic hurdles can get in the way of accessing the art form.

“But ballet is an art form that takes years to perfect, and I think what we are seeing now that Ballet companies that have schools attached to them are beginning to reach kids in their formative years. when they’re six seven eight years old community programs like boys and girls club American ballet theater in partnership with Misty Copeland had project plie all of these are programs that are designed to bring in and attract more black and brown youth,” Toni Wilson, H.R. and Interim Diversity executive with the San Francisco Ballet, said. 

Once they’ve made the leap into the world of ballet there is another obstacle. Everyone has an opinon on the optics, which means colors are constantly in question.

Traditionally, pointe shoes are pink and tights are white, but there has been a new shift to honor skin tone if the artistic director finds it is in line with their vision.

“People think that if my skin isn’t white, I ruined the line so, I mean the whole tights thing is, you know, I don’t care to get into those conversations because then you can knit pick and say all the skin tones should be the same and then I would not be allowed to be dancing,” Olivier said.

She says exceptions have been made for a principal role who doesn’t have to blend in with the rest of the line,  but again, there aren’t many African American women in that position.

Looking back on her journey through the tears and the smiles, Olivier says it’s been as beautiful as it has been tough.

“Don’t give up on yourself because if you close the door on yourself, you only have yourself to blame. So you just got to keep going,” Olivier said.

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