Ballet dropped as audition requirement at top UK dance school in diversity drive

19 July 2022, 12:41 | Updated: 19 July 2022, 12:43

A ballerina ties her shoe at a dance school
A ballerina ties her shoe at a dance school. Picture: Getty

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

The Northern School of Contemporary Dance, the UK's only conservatoire for dance outside London, recently announced it would be dropping ballet from its audition requirements.

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In a move towards a more ‘diverse student body’, the UK’s only conservatoire for dance outside London has announced that it will be dropping ballet as a requirement for auditions.

The Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) published a statement on their website on Monday evening saying, “We want to attract students from as broad and diverse a range of backgrounds as possible. We welcome those with ballet training but recognise that not everyone who might want to come to the School has had the opportunity to learn ballet.”

Ballet is stereotypically seen as an art form associated with a certain level of wealth, mainly due to costs associated with the lessons, clothes, and shoes needed to advance in training.

Many scholars have highlighted that ballet dancers that are accepted into ballet training, as well as those that become professional dancers, appear to be white, middle class or upper working class.

Attempting to eradicate this stereotype, the Leeds-based dance school continues, “We will therefore no longer be assessing a candidate’s ability in ballet as a component of the audition for our undergraduate degree programmes.

“Our audition process is designed to assess a student’s potential to benefit from our programmes.”

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The NSCD offers higher education courses focusing on contemporary dance, cultural dance forms, and contemporary dance education. None are ballet specific however, all will have the option to learn the art form.

“Following the ethos of our founding Principal, Nadine Senior MBE, we aim to identify those whose primary form of expression is movement, and offer them a rigorous, inspiring and valuable dance education,” continues the dance school’s statement. “Whilst ballet will not form part of our auditions, our students will be expected to learn ballet during their studies at the School.

“Ballet is an integral part of our curriculum and training, as we recognise how much ballet can contribute to our students’ physical, creative and technical development. Northern School of Contemporary Dance is and will always be supportive of colleagues and practitioners in the classical sector.

“We recognise that many have done incredible things in their own institutions to drive change forward and move with the times. We are committed to providing an inclusive and inspiring dance education that ensures our students are versatile and can enjoy sustainable careers. We continue to listen to our students; their needs, and ideas.​”

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In a Telegraph article published over the weekend, head of undergraduate studies at the conservatoire, Francesca McCarthy told the broadsheet that ballet “is a very specific [dance] form that is built around particular white European ideas and body shapes that are often alienating to young people who do not fit that aesthetic ideal.”

In 2020, professional French ballet dancer, Chloé Lopes Gomes, came forward to report racism in her work. The dancer, known for being the first female Black ballerina in the Staatsballett Berlin, said the company’s ballet mistress had told her that she should not have been hired because she was Black.

Gomes was told by the choreographer that “a Black female in the corps de ballet is not aesthetic”.

The ballet mistress went on to make continuous racist comments and jokes, but one event that particularly shocked Gomes was when the dance instructor was giving out white veils for performers to wear on their head as a costume. When it came to Gomes’ turn, the ballet mistress refused to give her the veil saying, “the veil is white, and you are Black”, before laughing in the dancer’s face.

Gomes was even asked to wear white makeup to “blend in with the other dancers” in a practice she says is “old-school”, “identity erasing”, and “racist”.

Read more: Black ballet dancer who had to ‘white up’ for Swan Lake wins Berlin racism case

Chloe Lopes Gomes was told to wear white make-up to blend in with other ballet dancers
Chloe Lopes Gomes was told to wear white make-up to blend in with other ballet dancers. Picture: Chloe Lopes Gomes/Instagram

“Ballet should reflect society and represent each of us”, Gomes told the BBC last year. “I do not want a little Black girl to think that this job is not for her because she has the wrong skin colour.”

Gomes was supported by Royal Ballet soloist, Fernando Montaño, a Colombian ballerina who has also spoken out about his experiences with racism within the classical art-form.

Montano told The Sunday Telegraph in 2018 that he used “light make-up on my hands and my face [to] look like the others and blend in with the rest of the company.”

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The NSCD is also trying to move away from ballet’s gendered language within movement vocabulary and when speaking to dancers.

McCarthy told The Telegraph that said NSCD was trying to “embed the use of ‘they’ pronouns [as opposed to him/her] in order to not make assumptions about a dancer’s identity”.

McCarthy explained that ballet is a gendered dance form. Women being more likely to learn pointe work, while men will lift their female co-stars, has been an issue for genderfluid and non-binary dancers.

Ashton Edwards, a non-binary American ballet dancer, was featured in the New York Times earlier this year as part of a rising “generation of gender nonconforming dancers questioning ballet’s rigid gender roles.”

Edwards, who was raised as a boy, says they were crushed when they found out only girls were allowed to dance en pointe.

However, in 2021, Edwards joined the Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice, where they have been dancing in historically female roles, and en pointe.

In April of this year, Edwards joined the swan ensemble in the ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, a role highly regarded for its traditional femininity.

Though critics say there’s still a long way to go to dismantle the binary within ballet training, a shift to a more inclusive dance training for all genders and sexualities can be seen in dance schools across the UK and beyond.

The Royal Ballet School in 2021 shared artwork year 11 students had created celebrating the pride month, which included flags representing the non-binary community.