The Dance Theatre of Harlem is in Pittsburgh for a two-week residency with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. The two companies are hosting more than 25 programs across the area, in part to promote diversity in dance, and it all starts with kids.
Ballet has traditionally been very white. In fact, it was only in the last two years that Misty Copeland became the first African American principal female dancer in the history of the American Ballet Theatre — one of the top companies in the world.
It takes about 10 years to train a professional dancer, and her publicity has led more companies to talk about how to expose children of all ethnicities to dance and start training them now.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre professional dancer Tori Watford says she’s used to being one of the only African Americans, everywhere she’s danced. “There aren’t many people to look up to,” Watford says. “You don’t see a lot of African Americans (in ballet) growing up. There was, I think, one African American girl in my first studio and that was it for me.”
That’s one reason she’s thrilled the Dance Theatre of Harlem is coming to perform in Pittsburgh — a company founded in 1969 in part to give African Americans more opportunity to dance.
Watford says the lack of role models is one barrier to minorities, in addition to challenges for many families like cost and transportation. “It takes so much commitment. It’s easier to play basketball at school and see your friends than it is to watch friends go who don’t want to do it and all the money that it takes, and it’s just a lot,” she says.
PBT has dancers from many ethnicities and seven countries. Artistic Director Terrence Orr says in the past, many ballet companies wanted the aesthetic of uniformity, but that’s changing.
“I look for dancers that have a different look so they’re not all looking exactly the same and you have everybody is 5’4″ and the perfect line,” Orr says. “It makes it more rich and complex as an art form to have different kinds of people but just really good artists.” Watford adds, “the way dancing has evolved is about being strong and beautiful, and you don’t have to be small, but you can be small. It’s just more inclusive now.”
PBT hopes this collaboration with the Dance Theatre of Harlem will show Pittsburgh audiences that ballet is by and for all types of people, with more than two dozen programs all over the area. PBT’S director of education and community engagement, Christina Salgado, says, “There’s also just a power for young children to see a role model, and these dancers can be a role model for them.”
PBT is working to give more kids the opportunity to dance — with scholarships for kids of all ages based on talent and need, long-term programs in schools in East Liberty and Homewood, and education outreach in schools all over the region.
That’s because it takes a lot of training to get to this level of talent. Watford says she has never felt discrimination and that, “It was always about talent or not having talent. It has nothing to do with what you look like, I think. It’s about your dancing.”
For the schedule of community events, go to https://www.pbt.org/performances/dth/