After complaining about instances of racism in her ballet company, Gomes was fired. She thus calls for the democratization of ballet.
Chloé Lopes Gomes describes the instances of discrimination she faced as a Black ballerina in a moving piece for CNN. As the first Black ballet dancer to join the Berlin Staatsballett, the principal ballet company in the German capital of Berlin, she experienced everything from "damaging stereotypes" to her ultimate dismissal from the ballet company. This is not the first time she has gone public with her story of racism in the ballet. She thus calls on the world of ballet to change, particularly as the pandemic presents an opportunity for the art form to make itself more accessible to new audiences.
"In 2018 I became the first Black ballet dancer to join Berlin's principal ballet company, the Staatsballett," she writes. "Joining this kind of ballet institution was my dream—it's one of the best in the world." However, last October, she was told that her contract would not be renewed for the summer season. Although the company cited "artistic reasons" for her termination, Gomes believes she was dismissed due to the complaints of racism she filed. The unfair treatment she endured from her ballet mistress was the cause of great stress for the ballerina. She explains, "I have suffered depression and humiliation—and I am far from the only dancer who has experienced derogatory comments and verbal abuse during my career. Such behavior is institutionalized within ballet, from the time that we are children and begin our training. We don't talk about it because we are taught not to."
Gomes suffered unfair discrimination alone, though her experiences did not occur in isolation. "I have heard over and over the damaging stereotypes that Black dancers aren't flexible enough or don't have the right feet, or that Asian dancers aren't expressive enough," she writes. "Ballet is still designed for White dancers, down to the shoes and makeup we wear. Nude-colored ballet shoes for Black dancers didn't exist until 2018. I've always had to buy my own makeup, because the foundation provided has always been for White skin. I've always been the only dancer to do my own hair, because the hairstylists don't know how to work with my texture. At Staatsballett, there are 95 dancers and I was the only one spending my own money on makeup. It makes you feel excluded. And it reminds me that when you are Black, you have to work harder to have the same opportunities."
The fact that ballerinas are taught to endure pain in silence does not make the issue of deep-seated racism any better. She states, "The silence is pervasive as well because we often don't have enough support or protection. The power that institutions give to the ballet masters is undeniable—at the end of the day, they are the ones who are with us in the studio and they are the ones who give us the opportunity to improve within the company. We only have one or two-year renewable contracts." As she has recently discovered, speaking out against a particular company within such a small sector can irreparably damage a dancer's career.
Nonetheless, Gomes has decided to speak up. She calls for the democratization of ballet as an art form. "The ballet world needs to change, and we have the chance to do so now, while the art form has been thrown into crisis during the coronavirus pandemic," the ballerina urges. "In order for the performing arts to survive, they have to reach new audiences. In ballet, which is still primarily White and elitist, we have to make it more accessible, and we can do that by making it a more inclusive and equitable art form." She recommends attracting talented and diverse young dancers in ballet schools and rebuilding ballet companies from the ground up to reflect the multicultural world we live in today. Gomez affirms, "It's so beautiful to see a blonde girl next to a Black girl, or a brown girl next to an Asian girl, all following the same choreography. Diversity isn't detrimental to the visuals of ballet—it can instead be its greatest strength."