'Humiliated and very alone': Black ballerina calls out racism in world of dance

LONDON – A black ballerina in one of Europe’s leading ballet companies has created racism in the elite dance world.

French national ChloĆ© Lopes GomesThe 29-year-old said she was ridiculed for the color of her skin and was sometimes pressured to wear white skin makeup, which left her feeling unsupported and humiliated. She described the ballet world as “closed and elitist” and criticized the lack of access of racist minorities to the classical art form.

Other dancers, including those in the United States, have expressed support for Lopes Gomes and said it was high time for the ballet world to address racism and bigotry.

She said that during rehearsals at the renowned Berlin State Ballet, in which she participated in 2018, she was told that her flaws were noticed because she is black. In another incident, she said she was mocked when she was offered a white veil for a show.

She also said she had to wear white makeup for some of Swan Lake’s performances, although the school officially dropped this requirement for people of color in the 2018-19 season. Although she recognized that this was a “tradition” for the show, she thought it was out of date.

“I don’t think it’s right to ask not just a black person but a ballerina to dye their skin whiter. I felt very humiliated and very alone,” she told NBC News.

“The harassment continued, I was very depressed,” she added. During an injury hiatus in 2019, she said the combination of injury and harassment led her to be prescribed antidepressants. Almost a year after returning to work, she learned that her contract, due to end in July, would not be renewed.

Lopes Gomes, whose father is from Cape Verde and whose mother is French and Algerian, said she complained to the company before learning that her contract would not be renewed. She added that she was forced to bring her experiences to the public in order to improve the situation for future generations of black dancers.

She said that during her career in Europe she often had to buy her own makeup for appearances or felt driven to straighten her curly hair.

The French ballet dancer Chloe Lopes Gomes poses for a picture in front of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in January 2021. Odd Andersen / AFP – Getty Images

The State Ballet Any form of discrimination in the company is unacceptable and has initiated an internal investigation and introduced mandatory workshops against discrimination and racism.

“I am sorry to see that there is an employee at the Berlin State Ballet who had to go through a very stressful situation for a long time and who could not be resolved beforehand,” said Christiane Theobald, the company’s interim artistic director.

“Discrimination and racism are a highly sensitive issue that is important to society as a whole, including the Berlin State Ballet.”

The company said it was unable to comment on personnel matters but took their complaints seriously. Corinna Erlebach, a spokeswoman for the company, added that since a 1997 production of Swan Lake, all corps dancers who acted as swans have been asked to lighten their skin, but repeated that the practice for people of color in for the 2018-19 season.

As one of the few professional black ballet dancers in Europe, Lopes Gomes, who was trained at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy, criticized the inadequate access for ethnic minorities.

“Our skin color shouldn’t be a criterion, only talent should play a role,” she said. “I want an equal chance for everyone, and at the moment I don’t.”

This month, The Paris Opera published a report Phil Chan, an arts administrator in New York City, said he described steps to improve diversity in dance, but racism in ballet is not limited to Europe.

Ballet was originally “made by whites for whites” to entertain kings and aristocrats, and often followed a “colonialist agenda” that exoticized non-white cultures.

In 2017 Chan co-founded “Last sheet for Yellowface, “a campaign to remove” caricatured “depictions of Asians in dance and urge artistic directors to better reflect modern audiences.

“If we don’t change we will be irrelevant dinosaurs,” he said.

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Many black dancers and organizations around the world have expressed solidarity with Lopes Gomes, including TaKiyah Wallace, founder of Brown girls doing ballet a representation improvement nonprofit that began in Dallas.

“It takes courage to speak up. ChloĆ© inspires dancers who look like her around the world,” said Wallace.

Young black dancers often face greater social and financial barriers to entering the industry, she added, calling for “these old ways of thinking” to be reprogrammed in both Europe and the United States.

Lopes Gomes said it was a fact that “ethnic minority people do not have access to this art” and complained that ballet shouldn’t be just “for the whites or the rich”.

“Society has moved on,” he said. “We live in a multicultural society, so ballet should … represent each of us.”

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