I’m sorry for those who are stupid enough to believe that ballet is racist or transphobic.

Sick as one might be of the way the poisonous ‘woke’ dart is thrown lazily at what is a real and complex set of problems, I fear it is rightly headed for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance from Leeds. Last month, he announced he would no longer require ballet proficiency for his auditions on the grounds that it is an “essentially elitist form” built around “white European ideas and body shapes often alienating”. Muffle your moans for a moment, and let me unpack this and offer some context.

First of all, it is not uncommon for schools specializing in contemporary dance to make the ballet course optional. There are several other respectable and effective systems of technique – Martha Graham, Laban, jazz and tap dancing, for example – which follow principles avoiding turned feet and the concepts of graceful line on which ballet is based.

But by common agreement, a ballet class offers the most rigorous and challenging training a dancer can aspire to. This is the gold standard: a good ballet dancer can adapt their body to any other style, enjoying levels of cardiovascular fitness and muscle flexibility, balance and precision, which demonstrably exceed those achieved by professional athletes and sportspeople. It’s a tough diet as hell, and not without potential downsides (poorly taught or supervised, it can hurt knees and hips in particular), but a dance school that doesn’t offer ballet simply deprives its students of the opportunity to reach their highest physical potential.

Yes, ballet could rightly be considered an art form established by white, largely male European elites – the same goes for virtually all art, literature and philosophy that gave millions of joy, inspiration and wisdom over the past 2,000 years, and presumably even the fiercest of governors of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance would not want to abandon the entirety of the Western tradition. But, predictably speaking of “decolonizing the school curriculum” and “unconscious bias”, did they pause to consider the extraordinary role in national morale played by Sadler’s Wells Ballet during the second world War ? Or the massive appeal of ballet films such as The Red Shoes, Turning, Billy Elliot Where Black Swan? Or the enormous international success of productions such as Matthew Bourne Swan Lake and Akram Khan Gisele that extend and question the classical language of ballet without arrogantly denigrating it?

Ballet has long been a career open to talent. During the post-war period, black and brown ballet dancers made their way into the profession – too slowly perhaps, but at a pace comparable to most major athletic and artistic fields. African American Arthur Mitchell was a major star of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in the 1950s who later founded the Dance Theater of Harlem; Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones and Judith Jamison followed in his wake.

Today in Great Britain the Trinidadian Cassa Pancho directs the splendid Ballet Black; three of the Royal Ballet’s current stars, Francesca Hayward, Marcelino Sambé and Joseph Sissens, have African or Caribbean origins, and Ryoichi Hirano, Fumi Kaneko and Akane Takada are Japanese. As for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance’s idea that the ballet champions “strongly gendered roots” and doesn’t welcome transgender people, I can only say that if that’s what she thinks, she doesn’t may not be aware of Vaslav Nijinsky’s androgyny, let’s just say Nijinska’s radically subversive sexual ambiguities The Hinds or Balanchine agon. Here, the ballet was the pioneer.

In short, we rather pity the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. By demoting the ballet, he simply demonstrates that he is narrow-minded, uninformed and short-sighted. It’s Leeds’ loss – talent will no doubt migrate to the Northern Ballet School in Manchester or the Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham, where the horizons are wider.

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