Audrey Marinda Borst
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In June 2020, Kennedy George and Ava Holloway went viral when they danced in front of a defaced confederate monument in downtown Richmond, Virginia.

The two ballerinas demonstrated that their craft could be a catalyst for change. Not only did their performance address ongoing racial injustice in the United States, it also called out the fact that this issue, among others, remains embedded within the international ballet community.

Ballet has been linked to social inequity since the 1400s. In Italy, the noble class performed court dances at weddings and holiday feasts. In time, the tradition made its way to France. By the 1600s, King Louis IVX had taken the social dance experience and transformed it into a performative one. King Louis codified rules and protocols that excluded lower classes, and most women, from practicing ballet. Aristocrats, who had previously been enamored with watching military drills, now gathered to watch ballet. At this time, the essence of war and dance became entangled; soldiers and dancers alike were heralded for their synchronization and discipline.

Photo of ballerina with curly hair
Photo by Gabriel Santos

Ballet then spread across Europe to Russia. There, it evolved yet again, during the Romantic Era of the 1800s. Romanticism introduced an airiness and softness to the art of ballet. Not only did this change the choreography, it also influenced the costumes. And to capture the newly popular aesthetic, female dancers re-entered the scene. Pastel, knee-length tutus replaced full gowns. Ballerinas swept their hair into buns, inspired by the aristocracy of ancient Greece.

Ballet has stayed much the same since then: a combination of militarism and romanticism. This makes it both precious and problematic.

“It’s a 400-year-old art form,” says Audrey Marinda Borst, 26, a classical ballet dancer and dance teacher in Brooklyn. “Part of its beauty is that it is steeped in traditions; it’s amazing that we are still doing so many of the same things! But there’s definitely problems with that — more than I’ve run into problems with, say, the contemporary or modern dance areas, where there’s a little bit more acceptability of different looks.”

While other dance forms have progressed, ballet has had difficulty pushing past its preconceived notions of ballerinas as petite, slim, and white. And with its military history, there has been a continued expectation that dancers all look identical while moving in synchronization onstage. They are even typically referred to, like a military unit, as a “corps.”

Audrey Marinda Borst
Ballet dancer and teacher Audrey Marinda Borst feels it’s important for her students to see her curls. (Photo by Miko Hafez)

“The court of ballet, they all do exactly the same thing, much like a military would,” says Jennifer Dournaux, 52, of St. Augustine, Florida, who is a classical ballet teacher, technically trained by the American Ballet Theatre, and a humanities professor to boot. “You don’t break ranks. It does have this echo of the military that stays with it.”

Therefore, many companies were resistant for decades to hire dancers with wavy, curly, or coily hair, since they would stand out from the smooth, shiny, sleek buns of the other dancers. Black dancers were rarely hired, nor were diverse body types — regardless of their talent onstage. Uniformity was prized even above skill itself.

“Curly hair is tied to ethnicity and ballet has not been inviting of that,” says Dournaux. “It makes you feel less attractive, because ballet has such a uniformity to it. I just knew for myself that it was a little bit of an embarrassment for me to have frizzy, curly hair. When you’re onstage, those little wispies catch the light and create a halo effect. Maybe nobody else noticed but me, but you did get scolded if your curls were popping.”

And, because a dancer’s body is their foremost tool, if they are treated differently because of how they look, subtly or overtly, it can affect their sense of value, skill, and even identity.

“When I was young, there was no product for curly hair that my mother knew of,” says Dournaux as she gestures to her curly hairline. “They would use this awful, yellow, jelly-looking shellac. Then they’d spray on hairspray. We didn’t have YouTube and things like that,” says Dournaux. “So if you saw dancers in magazines, you didn’t see them in their natural state. I never really thought of myself too hard as ‘the other,’ but there was always this under language going on like, ‘I am not like them.’”

Dournaux was not alone in, well, feeling alone about her curls in childhood ballet.

Borst says, “I had the extreme privilege to be Clara for the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker when I was 13. It was a really big deal. And I remember the ‘fall’ they gave me was curly hair.” (A fall is additional hair that is applied to a half-up/half-down style.) “Like, you can’t just use my curly hair? No one else had gotten that, just me,” says Borst. “They wanted something very defined, and I can do that with my hair with the right products, they just didn’t have someone to do that for me. I come in contact with that a lot, being on set for some gig and the only one having to do my own hair because people are not prepared for it.”

There’s an intense expectation to look “perfect” in ballet. Curly hair just doesn’t behave the same way that straight hair does, and the community currently doesn’t have many resources for styling curly hair.

Borst remembers instructors commenting on her hair. “You want to look ‘put together’ is what people will tell you,” she says. “They want you to have it slicked — no frizzies. I have had teachers come up to me and say, ‘Oh, these frizzies — no.’”

Dournaux says: “You do notice that our buns aren’t like other girls’ buns, with longer, straighter, easier-to-put-bobby-pins-in hair. They take on a different shape. We just have a different look about us that I recognized about myself as a kid.”

This can be especially tricky for young dancers who don’t even know how to do their own hair yet. For those students, hairstyling usually falls on a parent or guardian, who may not be skilled in curly hairstyling. Evie Monette, 10, of Clearfield, Utah, has been dancing since she was 4. She says, “I’m allowed to wear it curly; I just have to wear it in a bun. My mom does my hair for me. I can’t do hair yet.”

Photo of Evie Monette
Evie Monette (Photo by Laney Skye Photography)

Borst explains that the lack of educational resources on her hair type affected her self-esteem growing up as a biracial child with a single, white mom. “I wanted it to be long to fit a more feminine aesthetic, but I didn’t know how to take care of it, so I would throw it up in a ponytail. I had a lot of shame about not knowing how to take care of my hair. I felt like I fit in more when I had straight hair. I wasn’t proud of my hair. It felt like my hair was an ‘other.’ Like there’s ‘Audrey’ and then there’s ‘this.’”

Both Dournaux and Borst feel that ballet started to became more inclusive around 2010, when Borst says there was “a societal shift” happening around the world.

“I was seeing more natural curly girls in the media. More celebration of curly hair and advertisements specifically for my curl pattern,” says Borst. “It’s no surprise that people who look like us in the environments we’re in, or ones we’d like to be in, have a profound effect on our confidence, reflecting a sense of belonging.”

Dournaux describes when she began feeling more at home in ballet. “I had a modern teacher and she, and two of her colleagues, did a dance about their hair, which was down,” she says. “They would flip and swing their hair around. They were really well-trained dancers and it was a really cool dance! I remember one of them had hair like mine. And I think that’s when I was like, ‘Oh! You can have hair like mine and be considered a dancer. She’s doing it. So can I.’”

Both Dournaux and Borst want their students to see more diversity, including natural hair, represented in ballet. “I love doing photoshoots, big jumps, dancing, and having my hair free-flowing,” says Borst. “I have a lot of students of color, and I think it’s important for them to see my hair free and natural.” Even if she has to pull her hair back in a bun, she says, “I like to allude to my volume and do some sort of twist, so I get a bumpette. I’ve been very lucky that the companies that I’ve worked in have been very accepting of different hairstyles. The company I work for now, Brooklyn Ballet, is mostly dancers of color. One even has a pixie cut, which is also not usually accepted in the dance world. It’s really amazing.”

Photo of Jennifer Dournaux
Jennifer Dournaux (front) is a classical ballet teacher in St. Augustine, Florida. (Photo by Corey Sawchuck)

Dournaux is happy to see new diversity in ballet and wants to see more. “Dance has changed quite a bit since I was a student. Dance is much more inviting, forgiving, and inclusive than it ever was before. They didn’t even make tights and shoes in any other flesh color than peach and pink,” says Dournaux. “Now, we revere Misty Copeland.” In 2015, Copeland became the first African American woman to be a female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. “We recognize that there’s a history of beautiful African American ballerinas that were pushed to the back,” she explains. “We finally have all types of flesh-colored tights for women, men — for all dancers. It’s changing. I don’t think that’s good enough, but it’s changing.”

“I would love to see stylists come, not only with their products they think work for everybody, but some hair

for curly girls. The products you use are so important,” Borst says. “If there was more knowledge on the hairdresser’s side to be like, ‘I have the gamut of things to take care of anyone who sits down in my chair,’ that would be nice. And also, the acknowledgment that there is a difference even within curly hair types. Because you’ll see it’s like a rotary of people sitting in the chair, but you can’t treat everyone the same. Every curly hair — all the hair — is different. My hair is different every day.”

Dournaux, Borst, and Monette all glow when they talk about how much they love ballet, despite acknowledging its struggles with inclusion.

“It’s great watching something you love not be tossed to the side like an antique,” says Dournaux. “We shouldn’t blame the art form for limitations of social thinking. As a curly-haired ballerina, it’s nice to see more curly-haired ballerinas in the classroom, for sure. More colors, more sizes, more everybody.”

Without changing our hair, we can change our perspective on what it means to be different — even within a practice that celebrates sameness.

“There was somebody in my class last year that had curly hair like me,” says Monette, “but now I’m the only one.” And while that may have made a dancer feel alienated in the past, today she says, simply: “I feel special.”