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>
We all know the feeling: You wake up the day after class or rehearsal just to find that you literally. cannot. move. To answer all your burning (pun intended!) questions about the way-too-relatable topic of soreness, Dance Spirit enlisted the experts: board-certified sports medicine specialist Dr. Selina Shah, and Michelle Rodriguez, MPT and physical therapist to Broadway shows like Carousel and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
What even is soreness?<p>If you're working extra hard—taking more classes than usual, or dancing a super-"puffy" piece—your body's normal aerobic metabolism (how it uses oxygen to produce energy) can get overwhelmed. That's when anaerobic metabolism kicks in—producing lactic acid and metabolic toxins. "This buildup of lactic acid and other toxins isn't harmful or abnormal," says Rodriguez. "But once it reaches a certain level, you'll experience soreness."</p>
How can you prevent it?<p><span style="background-color: initial;">Because it's chemical buildup in your muscles that makes you feel sore, the key to minimizing the ouch is to flush these chemicals out sooner rather than later. "For some dancers, getting on a stationary bike for five minutes with no resistance can make a difference," says Rodriguez. You might also try self-massage, icing, or </span><span style="background-color: initial;">baths (see sidebar). Otherwise, Shah says to make sure you're taking time to warm up properly: "Doing a little bit of light cardio</span> <span style="background-color: initial;">and literally warming up the muscle should </span><span style="background-color: initial;">ease your discomfort."</span></p><p>If you've ever been so sore that you couldn't walk on the second or third day of a summer intensive, you've experienced firsthand the importance of what dance-medicine professionals call "ramping up." While taking breaks should be part of any year-round training regimen, you don't want to go straight from not dancing at all to dancing eight hours a day. "Soreness occurs when muscles have gotten weaker and aren't used to working that hard that fast," says Shah. A week or two before your intensive, start to gradually increase the amount of physical activity you're getting each day.</p>
What if it's not just soreness?<p>Don't freak out, but it's important to keep in mind that some overuse injuries can feel like soreness that just doesn't. go. away. Pay attention to how long you've been feeling sore, says Rodriguez: "Delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, can happen within six to eight hours, and last for 48 to 72 hours. After that, if you're still pretty sore, you should get seen by a medical professional."</p><p>Also pay attention to where you're feeling sore. "Usually it's muscles that make you feel sore, but tendons also can," says Shah. Ligaments and bones can't get sore—so if you feel like that's where the pain is coming from, get it checked out.</p>
Is soreness inevitable?<p>In short, yes. "Soreness isn't necessarily a sign that something's wrong," says Rodriguez. Nor is it a badge of honor: "Soreness is just a marker of how strong or fit that particular muscle is in that particular dancer at that particular moment in time," says Shah. "You may get sore in some areas where your friends don't, and vice versa." If you take good care of your body, though, you'll be able to minimize the pain enough to dance full-out—even on the sore days.</p>
The Dancer's Soreness Toolkit<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDUxNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1Njg2MDUxNn0.rChDAejOPUap8xuS1xcVcCG8IONj4YPbcxzLJAEoxTQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="9b0d2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3dd563f5e167df9f9ede1d2d4ec7b0f9" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Getty Images<p><strong></strong><strong>Massage!</strong> Foam rolling can feel a <span style="background-color: initial;">little too intense to muscles that are already sore, says Dr. Selina Shah, so don't roll out until a day or two after you first feel sore. Michelle Rodriguez, MPT, recommends gently kneading your own muscle tissue after a soreness-inducing day.</span></p><p><strong>Stretching!</strong> Stretching is most beneficial at the end of class or rehearsal, when muscles are warm, says Shah.</p><p><strong>Strategic breaktime!</strong> "If you don't need to run to the bathroom during your five-minute break, lie on the floor with your butt up against the wall, and put your legs straight up on the wall," suggests Rodriguez. "You can then do little ankle pumps to flush out your legs."</p><p><strong>#Bathleisure!</strong> "Try alternating between hot baths and ice baths," suggests Shah. The circulation boost caused by the change in temperature will help ease soreness.</p><p><strong>Hydration! Sleep! Electrolytes!</strong> Enough said.</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