I’ve been doing ballet since I was 3 years old.
I’ve been Jewish since birth.
Twenty-five years after starting ballet, and 28 years after being born, I have yet to have these two parts of my life coincide with one another.
The ballet world is unsurprisingly lacking in diversity. Dancers like Misty Copeland and Lauren Anderson have brought the lack of black ballerinas to the forefront — an issue finally getting a little spotlight after hundreds of years of tight-lipped avoidance. But while we need to prioritize darker-skinned ballerinas (and dancers at large) in the ballet world, there are still more issues beneath the surface.
Like, where are all the Jews?
I’m not talking about ballerinas that happen to be Jewish. Those are plentiful. In fact, many of the most famous ballerinas to grace the stage were Jews: Maya Plisetskaya, Dame Alicia Markova, and Michaela DePrince, who is finally getting the roles she deserves. (Not easy to be a black Jewish woman in the ballet world, so let us all take a moment of silence in appreciation for the fab Ms. DePrince.)
But if your reaction was largely, wait, they’re Jewish?, then my point is already made. Ballerinas may be Jewish, but there aren’t Jewish ballerinas because there aren’t Jewish ballets. That is, the ballet world itself is so overwhelmingly Christian-normative that there simply is no room for Jews. Or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus. Jewish dancers are expected to wordlessly assimilate into the heavily white, Christian world of ballet, in so many ways. Ballet is like a metaphor for the forced assimilation of Jews in Western society. Allow me to explain:
“The Nutcracker” is the basis for almost half of the revenue that professional ballet companies depend on. And for ballet schools, amateur productions are a constant apex of the year, with spring shows often coming in a distant second in terms of expectations and excitement. The beloved classic is… obviously pretty Christian, and very white. You might be saying, duh, Sarah. It was created by Russians who were largely Orthodox Christians. But we do not live in 19th century Russia anymore. (PHEW.) We live in a world where no one has the excuse of having never seen a Jew, a Chinese person, a Muslim.
The absurd stereotypes on proud display within the Christmas pageantry aren’t just dated, but straight up racist. Having almost entirely white dancers portray “Chinese tea” as they twirl around in faux cheongsams with dollar store parasols is not kosher. Neither is the role I played just about every year: the Arabian, clad in see-through harem pants and seductively charming a snake out of an oil lamp. Yes, I have Middle Eastern heritage. No, I do not wear harem pants (ever) nor do I jiggle my hips at the reptile display in Petsmart.
But it’s not just “The Nutcracker.”
“La Bayadere” is a ballet set entirely in India, but in a 19th century Russian imperialist imagination of India, replete with brown face, dancing “savages,” and even a child slave.
Jewishness as a religion or culture is generally wiped clean from ballet. Jews are an invisible minority, pressured to appear as whatever character they’re given — typically that of a white, Western sylph or fairy. And if you’re a Middle Eastern Jew, a Chinese Jew, or, like me, a Romani Jew, you simultaneously do not exist and exist as a caricatured stereotype for the audience’s enjoyment. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve played a racist caricature of a g*psy. Including one where I went around begging for coins and stealing. That was a real low point in my ballet career.
While the rest of the world slowly acknowledges the existence of non-white, non-Christian people, it’s time for the ballet world to step up, too. It’s time to, for one, stop brown face and racist stereotypes on stage. There’s no excuse for it anymore. Full stop. As a choreographer, I can think of plenty of ways to maintain balletic integrity without the racism, so the excuse that it would “ruin the ballet” is entirely absurd. Secondly, it’s time to stop pretending Jews don’t exist on stage. For a people that supposedly runs the arts and media industry, we certainly don’t do a great job at representation for ourselves. Where are the Jewish characters? The ballets about our holidays and our history and our people? The ones not about the Holocaust, which all seem to be choreographed and danced by non-Jewish white people anyway?
Ballet, you need to do better. Jews exist. So do Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and all other kinds of people. And if ballet keeps sticking to dated racist stereotypes and Christian-normative narratives, it will die. Because the world has moved on from 1880. And so should ballet.
Header image via Julie Winegard on giphy.