Civil rights leader Malcom X famously said that "the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman." Decades later, those words still resonate. And the dance world isn't immune to subjecting Black women to unfair treatment. After all, it wasn't until this year—and after mounting pressure from online petitions—that many major dancewear brands pledged to make tights and pointe shoes in hues that match the complexions of Black women.
But other, more insidious issues continue to obstruct progress for Black women in the dance world. Dance Spirit spoke with five Black women about the obstacles they've faced as professional dancers.
Facing Microagressions<p>Tap dancer Maud Arnold, who's a member of the popular tap troupe Syncopated Ladies, says she's felt the effects of being treated differently as a Black woman throughout her career. "In my experience, being a Black woman in spaces that are not run or controlled by Black women can be extremely hostile and condescending," she says. "In addition to being a dancer, I also produce large-scale dance events. Yet I have walked into hotels where I am renting ballrooms and theaters, where I am executive-producing the show, and been asked, 'Where's the boss?' or 'You know you need a team to do this, right?' or 'We anticipate you <em>might</em> sell 50 percent of the tickets,' " Arnold recalls. (And for the record, the event ended up selling out.)</p><p>Such microaggressions—comments or remarks that reveal stigma towards historically marginalized groups—range from subtle innuendos to harsh judgments. "I was told to consider limiting my expectations, and instead aim to get into a small or semiprofessional company," Erica Lall says, who's currently a dancer with American Ballet Theatre. "I had to learn to progress mostly by applying the instructions and corrections that my classmates and colleagues received because I was often overlooked."</p><p>Jacqueline Green, a principal dancer at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, says she also experienced microaggressions as a young dancer, most notably when she trained at prestigious summer programs. "Not only did some of the young dancers I trained with participate in reminding me of my Blackness by giving me backhanded compliments like 'You're, like, really good,' but some of my teachers also had similar reactions to my level of talent and skill," Green says. "Not all of these responses were malicious or meant to single me out, but for a 13-year-old girl, it was a wake-up call. Ballet wasn't a field yet familiar or comfortable with the presence of the Black body, and, unfortunately, it still isn't quite there."</p>
Jacqueline Green (Richard Calmes, courtesy Green)
Lack of Opportunities<p>For Black women, the hard part about navigating the dance world isn't just getting the job—it's finding one. Broadway veteran Monique Smith says there simply aren't many musical theater tracks created for Black women, which translates to fewer opportunities for employment. "When white female dancers have a chance to receive one out of four possible tracks in a show, there is usually only one possible track for the Black female dancer," Smith says.</p><p>Keisha Hughes, a commercial dance artist who's worked with some of the biggest names in music, including Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, and Lil' Kim, says colorism comes into play in casting, with some creative teams favoring lighter skin tones over darker ones. "Casting directors and artists are still looking for ethnically ambiguous women because that is what they think will be best received by the world," she says. "They refuse to switch that formula up."</p>
Culture Shaming<p>Because Black women tend to have different hair textures, physical builds, and cultural experiences than their white counterparts', they are often made to feel unfit for the dance world. And many of its microcosms, like the ballet community, uphold whiteness as the standard. "I've been called 'the dark one' and been told I had bulging muscles everywhere, when I never really had bulging muscles," Lall says. "I just had a perkier booty that was more prominent than those of my other classmates."</p><p>Arnold recalls being singled out for her hair at several auditions. "One panelist asked me, 'Can your hair do anything else?' I have always worn my hair naturally, wild and curly, but that was before the natural-hair movement," Arnold says. "Since many people on the other side of the table do not look like me or have friends who look like me, they do not understand the possibilities of my hair."</p>
Maud Arnold (Lee Gumbs, courtesy Arnold)
Powering Forward<p>Being a Black woman in the dance world poses many unique challenges. But the five women we interviewed have persevered through it all, and agree that believing in yourself is the key to accomplishing your goals. "No industry is perfect, and you may experience some things that feel wrong or questionable," Green says. "But keep going with what you know is right. There's a place to dance for everyone, and if you don't find one, maybe you need to create it."</p>
Niana Guerrero is only 14, but she already boasts 12.6 million TikTok followers—the kind of internet fanbase most people twice her age can only dream of. Of course, keeping up with her millions (and millions, and millions) of fans isn't easy. We spent a day with Niana to see what it really takes to be a TikTok star. —As told to Cadence Neenan
Morning<p>I usually wake up at about 6 am. That's one way my routine has changed because of the coronavirus—quarantine has made me learn to start my day earlier! Plus, waking up early means I have lots of good sunlight for filming my TikToks…</p><p>Right when I wake up, I check my phone to catch up on things for a minute: text messages from my friends, comments on my TikToks. Then I go downstairs, eat breakfast, and step outside to see the beautiful sun.</p><p>Before I start shooting TikToks, I usually spend a while browsing my "For You" page to see what trends there are. Whenever I see something I like, I save it. I can't really explain why I like some trends better—I'm just looking for a fun, vibe-y type of thing. I actually work a little backwards: Once I find a trend I like, I learn it right away, but I don't shoot the video till the next day. I like that better, because I can shoot a bunch of TikToks all at once, and I already know all the dances. It takes a few hours, but I usually learn five or six TikTok dances a day. I don't think I have a favorite TikTok dance I've ever done, but the hardest I've learned is definitely "Renegade." It's tough because it's fast, but it's really lit.</p>
Afternoon<p>Once I've spent some time learning TikToks, I'll work on recording videos. How much time I spend recording really depends on how difficult the dance is, and how long it is. If they're easier, or shorter, it might only take me a few minutes. But even then, I do a bunch of takes. You look at my TikTok page, and you see tons of videos, right? Well, each video requires about a dozen takes, because I'm not always satisfied with how they turn out, especially the first time around.</p><p>The best advice I can give for filming TikToks is to just be yourself. You don't have to copy other people or copy the styles that other people do. If you want to put your own twist on the choreo, you can do that. Like, I brought my siblings into my TikToks. At first, it was just for fun, but then the people in the comments said they wanted to see my siblings more! Now, I love filming TikToks with them—we have so much fun learning the dances together.</p><p>I try to get off TikTok mid-afternoon. Then I'll go to my basement—we have a mini dance studio down there—and I'll dance more. I like to freestyle to R&B or hip-hop music, just vibing with the music, feeling the groove. I also take online classes through STEEZY. I guess that's the new normal since we can't take regular classes right now. If I'm not dancing, I'll play games like Fortnite. Or nap.</p>
Evening<p>I like to get social media stuff done earlier in the day so I have free time later in the day. Another way that quarantine has changed my routine is that I spend more time with my family, which is really nice. We'll go outside during the sunset, to just enjoy it, and relax together.</p><p>After that, I'll try to get to bed. Usually, I try to get to sleep by about 10 pm at the earliest, but I definitely find myself scrolling too long on TikTok, of course. The app is addicting!</p>
Having to wear a mask is a small price to pay to finally be back dancing with partners other than our family members and pets. But we won't lie: Masks are uncomfortable. If you've experienced "maskne"—increased irritation and acne from frequent mask-wearing—you're not alone. Luckily, dermatologists have quickly become experts on this new dilemma. Dance Spirit spoke to two to get their top tips for mask-wearing dancers.
Make sure your mask fits<p>"Masks that are too tight or rub the skin too frequently can cause excess irritation and worsen your risk of breaking out," says Dr. Claire Chang, a board-certified dermatologist in NYC. Plus, the more you have to adjust your mask, the more acne-causing bacteria can transfer onto your mask or face. When it comes to choosing</p><p>a mask, avoid synthetic fabrics, like nylon and polyester, especially if you have sensitive skin. Chang recommends high-threadcount cotton or cotton-blend masks, as they're hypoallergenic, absorbent, durable, and breathable, and can control moisture buildup between your skin and the mask. </p>
Avoid makeup and other irritants<p>It's official: 2020 is the year <span style="background-color: initial;">of au naturel. </span><span style="background-color: initial;">Both dermatologists strongly advise against</span> wearing makeup under your mask. But if you absolutely must, Chang recommends you only apply it to parts of your face that won't be covered (hello, dramatic cat-eye), and stick to products that are noncomedogenic and oil-free to prevent clogged pores and acne breakouts. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, mask-wearing <span style="background-color: initial;">can make your skin more sensitive, so</span></p><p>if any harsher products—like scrubs, retinoids, or acne treatments—seem to be irritating your skin more than usual, use them less frequently for now. The one product you shouldn't skimp on? Sunscreen. Chang says, "Whether you're exercising outside or dancing close to windows, sun protection is still essential. Use lightweight, oil-free sunscreens to avoid breakouts."</p>
Bring multiple masks to cycle through your dance day (Getty Images/Sergio Yoneda)