Controversy in the Performing Arts


The theater and dance world is an extremely hard world to understand and most people are shocked to learn about the unwritten rules of this profession. There are a ridiculous amount of stereotypes that go along with being a dancer as well. For instance many people think that they are weak, or my favorite “Dance is just so easy and fun.” Stereotypes such as these frustrate me to no end, but unfortunately some of them are true. Some, however, are evolving. Although there are many people out there that are trying to fight against this evolution of the dance world.

There are so many questions to be asked here. Where do we draw the line? What makes this racist, sexist, or inappropriate? There are many controversial things in this business, but there are also so many people that have no clue how this business works because it is so often overlooked. The general public is unaware how difficult art is and how much pressure is put onto performers. Let’s look at everything from my perspective.


Black Face History

From the 1820s to the 1890s, black face was the most popular form of entertainment in America. It was originated because white men wanted to portray black men on stage as plantation slaves. The jokes that were made were highly degrading and ugly stereotypes, and the audience loved it. These jokes were entertaining and made them laugh endlessly.

A few famous black face performers were; Thomas “Daddy” Rice who often portrayed Jim Crow, and George Dixon who often portrayed Zip Coon. In the 19th century white people only allowed black performers onstage if they performed in blackface. Shirley Temple even performed blackface in the 1935 film “The Littlest Rebel”.

“The 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, the first feature film to be shown in the White House, used blackface to portray Reconstruction era black legislators as incompetent and to paint all black men as threatening to rape white women. “ Blair L. M. Kelley writes. Many people think that performing blackface is illegal. Technically it is not, at least in the United States. In New England if someone were to perform blackface they would be accused of being racist and offensive, but in the South it might not be that big of a problem. There are still so many racial issues in America today. If you think there isn’t racism in America anymore you’re very wrong.


Coleman, Christina. “GlobalGrind History Lesson: The Real Reason It’s Just Not OK To Wear Blackface (LIST).” Global Grind. N.p., 30 Oct. 2013.


Casts of Color

“Hamilton” is a record breaking musical with ticket prices as high as $1000. The smash hit tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s personal life as well as the part of his life that contributed to the United States of America. The concept of the show is “The people of today telling the story of the people back then.” As of this, almost all of the music is rapped, and almost all of the cast is colored. That is one of the reasons why this show is so popular. It draws to the younger generation and to people who aren’t even interested in theater. Although this show has had incomparable success, the show has received threatening comments saying that it is racist against Caucasian performers and their casting choices are unacceptable. This altercation was a hot topic to discuss after one certain night.

On the evening performance of November 19th, 2016, Vice President Mike Pence made an appearance in audience to see a phenomenal performance of “Hamilton”. As he walked in the auditorium he received very mixed reviews. Some people were being respectful and recognized him as a celebrity regardless of their political views and applauded his entrance. Others didn’t hide their hatred and booed him as he walked in accompanied by multiple security guards. Regardless of how he was greeted, the cast had a special announcement for him after they took their bows. In this speech one cast member Brandon Victor Dixon made public that many people were nervous about Trump’s presidency and that they don’t trust the two to run the country.

“We hope you will hear us out. We, sir – we – are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,”

-Brandon Victor Dixon

This speech received a lot of support, but also a lot of hate. After Pence saw the show that night and the word was out about Pence being “called out” at the theater a certain meme was created that joked about how the show was racist.

As discussed before the performing arts world is a very difficult world to understand. This show is a social commentary on not only the generalized America today vs. America yesterday, but also America’s immigration today vs. America’s immigration yesterday. That is why the cast is mostly colored.

This is not the only show that non-theater people would consider racist. If you truly think about it theater is unfortunately racist, but it has to be in order to make sense. In the musical “Hairspray”, half of the cast is colored because that is the main plot of the show; racism. It wouldn’t make sense if white actors played the black characters or if black actors played white characters. In theater people are hired based off not only what they look like but also their race. People don’t always think about theater as a real job so when you put that into perspective non-theater people might have an outrage about it.

“No decision affecting hiring, promotion, firing or a term, condition or privilege of employment shall discriminate on the basis of a person’s race or color, nor shall employees be harassed or otherwise discriminated against on such basis, or perceived basis.”

-State of New York    Employment Law

Click below to see the requirements to be a Disney Character. The list would shock most people who would think of it as racist and sexist.

While I truly believe in all that I am saying and I completely stand by what casting directors have to do in order to put on the best show possible there are a few things to think about. Earlier this semester at Plymouth State University, the Music, Theater, Dance Department put on a concert version of the musical “Ragtime”. Traditionally, African Americans play two of the characters. It isn’t a huge plot point in the story but in PSU’s production Caucasian students played these two characters. What makes that acceptable, and hiring Caucasian actors to play the African Americans in “Hairspray” not acceptable?

When putting on a concert version of a musical, it’s all about the music and the emotion behind it. The audience knows they are not coming to see the full show. There’s no set, most likely no costumes, and very minimal blocking. That’s the difference between the two situations. That’s why the casting directors thought it was acceptable to put on this production knowing that this University is in the middle of nowhere in New Hampshire and there weren’t going to be any African Americans to cast. It’s a very complicated process and casting directors often have to make very difficult decisions when casting. Some people can be quick to judge when learning about this business. All we can do is educate so others can understand why we do what we do.


Mele, Christopher, and Patrick Healy. “‘Hamilton’ Had Some Unscripted Lines for Pence. Trump Wasn’t Happy.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 Nov. 2016. Web. 03 May 2017.

Schaefer, Brian. “Dance in the Age of Black Lives Matter.” Dance Magazine (2016): n. pag. Print

Patton, Tracey Owens. “Final I Just Want to Get My Groove On.” Journal of Pan African Studies 4.6 (2011): 104-25. Print.


Men Wear Tights Too

Over the past two centuries, the traditions of classical ballet have stayed the same. Back in the 1600s when ballet was first invented by King Louie the 14th, it was originally known as the “Rich Peoples’ Dance”. It was a dance where men presented their ladies to the world and everybody wanted to look beautiful. Here are some classical traditions of ballet:

  • Women wear pointe shoes, men don’t.
  • A pas de deux (step of two) is always between a man and a woman and is always about the woman.
  • Women are known for turning, men are known for jumping because men are seen as stronger.

Many people would be horrified to see this quote. They would consider it sexist, but ballet was invented 400 years ago. Things were a little different back then when the genders were exceedingly unequal. Now if we want to go back 400 years ago when King Louie the 14th first invented ballet, during that time ballet was all about the men because women weren’t allowed on the stage yet. It wasn’t until the late 1600s when women were allowed on the stage. The first female ballet dancer was Mademoiselle La Fontaine who trained under Jean-Baptiste Lully. George Balanchine was the choreographer to start the tradition of featuring the women. “In my ballets, woman is first. Men are consorts. God made men to sing the praises of women. They are not equal to men: They are better.” –George Balanchine


Classical ballet is still holds it’s traditions to this day. Original choreography is still performed with the original costumes. If some people find these traditions sexist because times have changed why do we still perform like this? Of course there are ballet companies that have broken a few of these traditions, but is this a problem we should fix?


“Sexism, Racism, and Job Opportunities in Ballet…” A Ballet Education. N.p., 07 July 2016.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “La Fontaine.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d.


Body Image

It’s no secret that dancers are traditionally supposed to have a slim figure especially if you are female. It’s a classic stereotype. Back in the early 1900s a male ballet dancer George Balanchine created the classic image of a ballerina; tall, thin, flat chest, small head, long neck. Luckily times have changed ever so slightly so there are short, muscular female dancers out there, but you certainly will not find that sort of image in any East Coast ballet company.



The Balanchine image is very much still alive today and it has caused many health issues. “Eating disorders in the dance world are the opposite of a secret: they’re considered a cliché”, says Shane Jewell. Many dancers also smoke cigarettes to keep their figure. It takes a lot of commitment to be a prima ballerina. Luckily in the mid 1900s Mikhail Baryshnikov became a very famous icon in the ballet world. He redesigned the image of a ballerina, at least in the west coast that is. He was a very short ballet dancer himself, only about 5’8”. He wanted his female dancers to be shorter than him. Ballet dancers on the west coast are now usually shorter, curvier, more muscular, with a slightly larger chest. Now more dancers can get more jobs, even if they were born looking a little bit different, but only in the west coast.

In the year 2015 an African American ballet dancer by the name of Misty Copland was hired as the first African American woman to be a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater. As great as that is why did it take until 2015? That’s not the only thing that is different about Misty Copland. She did not start dancing until she was 13, which is extremely late for a dancer. Most professional dancers start taking dance lessons between the ages of 3 and 5. She was told that she would never be a professional ballet dancer because of the way her body was structured. She has a slightly bigger chest that most ballerinas and is very muscular, but when she turned 17 she became an apprentice for the American Ballet Theater and proved those people wrong.

Dancer Misty Copeland shares her life story with students


Dunning, Jennifer. “Eating Disorders Haunt Ballerinas.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 July 1997.

Jewel, Shane. “Eating Disorders in the Dance World.” Clyde Fitch Report. N.p., 14 Jan. 2017.

Arcelus, John. “Influence of Perfectionism on Variables Associated to Eating Disorders in Dance.” N.p., 2015.

Niki Lanter, Harvard Graduate Council Correspondent |, David Cecere, Cambridge Health Alliance |, Liz Mineo, Harvard Staff Writer |, Colleen Walsh, Harvard Staff Writer |, and Christina Pazzanese Harvard Staff |. “Dancer Misty Copeland Shares Her Life Story with Students.” Harvard Gazette. N.p., 11 May 2017.

Time Has Changed The Rockettes 

The Rockettes are a group of 36 female dancers that are all very lean and tall with very white teeth. They are very well known for their iconic kick line where they all kick at the exact same height. Looks are everything to the performances done by these dancers. The way that the dancers are lined up is by height. The tallest goes in the middle and the next two tallest goes on either side of her until the two shortest are on either ends. The rule is that the dancers must be between 5’5’’ and 5’10’’.



The rules of this famous company have changed over time. Back in 1925 when this group first came about they only hired white women. They would even be contractually obligated to not get a tan. Of course this makes sense because it was the 20s and racism was not looked at as wrong by popular belief just yet. Although they didn’t change until the late 1980s, almost 20 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Had a Dream” speech. As said before, the human eye is drawn to aesthetically pleasing images and dancers work hard to uphold that expectation, but when is it taken too far?

“The shapely legs best known on the famous [Radio City Music Hall] stage — over 5,000 pairs since the Rockettes began in 1932 — are all white,” Times writers Laurie Johnston and Susan Heller Anderson shared.  “The chorus line has never been integrated because, as Violet Holmes, its director and choreographer, has maintained in the past, blacks would ‘distract’ from ‘the look of precision,’ the Rockettes’ trademark.”

During the 2016 election, The Rockettes were asked to dance at the inauguration to continue the tradition. Most of them refused to perform because they wanted to protest Donald Trump. They called him “Sexist, racist, and everything in the book.” One DMN reader, a black woman had a strong response to this. “All I can say is you have one of the most racist organizations in American entertainment.” Of course this rule has changed along with the progression of America there are hundreds of African American women that have performed brilliantly as Rockettes. Why did it take so long for the rules to change? Does this DMN reader have a right to still call the Rockettes racist?


“The History of the Rockettes.” Radio City Rockets: History. N.p., n.d.

Resnikoff, Paul. “The Rockettes: “One of the Most Racist Organizations in American Entertainment”.” Digital Music News. N.p., 04 Feb.

Vagianos, Alanna. “Rockette On Inauguration Performance: ‘This Is An Issue Of Racism And Sexism’.” The Huffington Post., 27 Dec. 2016.


Miley Cyrus Has a Different Point of View

Aesthetically pleasing to the eye is what most choreographers go for, but clearly some don’t care and some want to make a point about it. Now it’s no secret that Miley Cyrus does not care what others think of her. Regardless of weather it has to do with her career or not she does what she wants pretty much just because she can and it makes her happy. When she brought little people on stage to dance for her, her audience made it clear that they were not pleased.

In the performing arts world we have this crazy idea as audience members that the performers have to live up to our expectations and that we must be impressed. In Hollywood that concept in heightened immensely. Fans often think that they have a say in what celebrities should do with their lives and what they put into their entertainment. Miley Cyrus told her fans that she wanted the little people that were dancing for her “to feel sexual and beautiful”. She discusses more about how she didn’t want them to feel degraded and she wants them to feel the same way the rest of the dancers do when they are on stage.–2014282

One point that she made that seemed very interesting was the way she spoke about one of her little female dancers ability to dance. “She’s actually an awesome dancer”, she says. The same argument has been going on and on in the dance world for quite some time about how your ability to dance comes way before what you look like, but some people would argue that hiring a little person to dance for you goes to far. These people think that there are limits to what we can put on the stage and that there are rules we have to follow.

One of the most important things that I have learned as a performer is that 50% of what you learn is the rules and the other 50% of what you learn are how to break those rules. Who is to say what is aesthetically pleasing? Art has come a long way since the beginning of mankind and it has especially grown in the past century.

Unfortunately one of her little person back up dancers spoke up how she really felt about her performance:

I had never been in a performance where I was purely meant to be gawked or laughed at. I will never forget that performance because it is what forced me to draw my personal line in the sand. After our first dress rehearsal in the costumes with the crew, publicists, performers etc watching us, I walked out of the Barclay Center shaking and crying. Thankfully, my best friends, Kelly and Kerri, happened to be NYC to visit me. They were waiting for me and I walked up to them and broke down. I love being the center of attention, but that was something different. I was being stared and laughed at for all of the wrong reasons. I was being looked at as a prop…as something less than human.


She explained how she felt used. A lot of people look at Miley Cyrus and think she turned insane after she was done being Hannah Montana. I’m sure that nobody had a problem with thinking she was in the wrong. Being a short dancer myself, I have learned something very important to keep in mind. I am constantly being hired for my height. It’s type casting. The characters I play are sometimes supposed to be tiny, and that’s why I am hired. Miley Cyrus wanted to make a statement, but some clearly took it the wrong way.


Eggenberger, Nicole. “Miley Cyrus Defends Using Little People: “We’re Making Them Feel Sexual”.” Us Weekly. Us Weekly, 28 Feb. 2014.

Jefferson, Whitney. “One Of Miley Cyrus’ Little-Person Backup Dancers Calls Her Out.”BuzzFeed. N.p., 14 Oct. 2013.


Competition Dance…What is it Good For?

I grew up being told as a dancer that competition dance was absolutely pointless. This is something that I very much believe in to this day but of course it gets a little more complicated than that. Competition dance isn’t necessarily “bad” in my opinion, it just shouldn’t be your main source of education or something you should be spending an insane amount of time in, but kids really enjoy it these days because of shows like “Dance Moms” and “So You Think You Can Dance”. Young dancers are comparing themselves with the dancers on those shows and it makes them very competitive. Here are some facts that I have learned about competition dance over the years:


  • You get to perform a lot
  • Sometimes you get good feedback
  • It’s fun


  • It costs hundreds of dollars (which you could spend taking class instead).
  • Most of the time the judges only want you to do tricks and not be artistic and only comment on what you are wearing.
  • Judges only want to see the dancers be flashy instead of showing true emotion.
  • You only get to be on stage for about 2 minutes at a time.
  • You don’t get to choose your lighting or almost anything technical you only get white light for the whole piece.

To me the Cons list definitely out weighs the Pros list, but of course that is only my opinion. Bree Hafen wrote an article defending competition dance. Here were her reasons as to why she believes competition dance is important:

  1. Competition dancers get to perform – lots!
  2. Competition dancers learn to perform a variety of styles.
  3. Competition dancers are scored/critiqued.
  4. Competition dancers always get to keep an eye on what is out there.
  5. Competition dancers have proven to do well after they graduate.

For further reading on this article click here:

While these reasons are true I can relate to these examples as well and I’ve never even been to a dance competition. I perform very often from doing musicals, concerts, etc. because I am a very versatile dancer. I am constantly critiqued because I am a student just like any other dancer, and I am constantly being updated about job opportunities from the multiple connections I have. It’s true that competitive dancers can have these advantages, but you don’t need to pay $100 to perform a solo on stage for one minute in order to get the proper training that you need.

Competition studios are in the majority now, and even studios that simply have a recreational focus (meaning students are not necessarily looking to pursue dance as a livelihood) are focused on dance in the commercial realm. And I do think that is limiting, as there is a whole world of dance that exists outside that realm. Creative exploration and development is a privilege and it is too bad that many students don’t receive that opportunity. I don’t think competition itself is the reason they don’t but, I think it’s possible that this majority shift in focus toward commercial dance has affected the balance in education.

-(Dance Advantage website).


“Why We Don’t Compete.” Sacred Ground Dance. Sacred Ground Dance, 2014.

“How About We Stop Pooh-Poohing Competition Dance…?” Bree Hafen RSS. N.p., 17 May 2015.


Trump Isn’t the Only One Who Wants to Cut the Arts

The issue of the arts in public schools being looked down upon has been going on for years. The funding for the arts are most of the time the first to be cut if need be. The sports programs are usually the ones that are cherished and schools put a lot of money and time into it.

I’m not saying that sports aren’t important because I believe they are. I played plentyof sports myself in high school, but the funding for the sports that I played were huge and we were given so many opportunities and the Music Department that I was also a part of was given no money. We had to raise all of our money ourselves, and most of the time we didn’t have enough money to get the experiences that we wanted.

With so little public funding, schools have been relying more on private funds and patrons of the arts to provide creative outlets for students. There has also been a growing trend of nonprofit arts organizations setting aside more funding for arts education and outreach to local schools. These efforts have included partnerships between orchestras and schools, such as OrchKids, an educational program run by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

-Jill Hambek

Recently Trump has announced that he has a plan that involves cutting the funding for agencies that fund the arts, humanities, and public media. Of course many people had an outrage about this, but this has always been a problem. It’s not new. Quite a few people have written about reasons why we should put more money into the arts instead of sports. Here are a few reasons given by George Heymont:

  • Sports programs are often an entry point to institutionalized drinking.
  • Arts programs tend to be a lot calmer (have you ever heard of an audience member being trampled to death during a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, Phantom of the Opera, or Wicked?).
  • Sports programs often teach kids the importance of winning at all costs.
  • Arts programs like theater, dance, band, and chorus teach students to sharpen their skills while working toward a shared goal.
  • Sports programs often involve rough physical contact that can lead to bodily injury.
  • Arts programs tend to be more expressive than combative.
  • Sports programs often foster an atmosphere of dominance and hostility in which athletes are encouraged to humiliate their opposition as “losers” (this includes institutionalized bullying by coaches, parents, opponents, and fans).
  • Arts programs are designed to help talented children blossom and thrive.
  • Sports programs have occasionally suffered unnecessary deaths on the playing field.
  • Arts programs have yet to report anyone dying while playing a musical instrument or reading a poem.
  • Sports teams often ask for God’s blessing to help them beat the competition.
  • Arts programs teach students how to reach within themselves for inspiration.
  • Sports programs often produce extremely competitive students whose careers may peak early in life.
  • Arts programs often produce extremely creative students whose critical thinking skills and ability to adapt to new situations deepen as they mature.

Some of these examples are a bit extreme of course, but many of them are very true. Regardless of my opinion I believe it’s safe to say that if you are not an “arts person” you will have trouble understanding why other people feel they need funding for arts programs. If you’re not a “sports person” you’ll have trouble understanding why other people feel they need funding for athletic programs.


Naylor, Brian. “Trump’s Budget Plan Cuts Funding For Arts, Humanities And Public Media.”NPR. NPR, 16 Mar. 2017.

Dickson, Dave. “Fine Arts Should Be Spared From School Districts’ Budget Cuts.” NFHS. N.p., 13 Oct. 2015.

Hambek, Jill. “Arts Programs in Schools Often in Danger of Being Cut.” The Washington Times. The Washington Times, 14 Mar. 2016.



There are many issues in any performing arts business, but can we really solve them? Are they justifiable? Or is it really that big of an issue. Performing arts jobs are some of the hardest jobs in the world and these are the reasons why it’s such a difficult business to be hired into. Ballet will always be historical and classic and that style will always be around, but art is always changing as well. The fact that we are hired based off our looks will always be rough, but there will always be new opportunities and ways to improve our craft and world.

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One thought on “Controversy in the Performing Arts”

  1. This is a totally fascinating list of controversies, most of which are tied to how a dancer’s physical features affect their ability to perform in certain roles or shows. But it’s a bit tough to follow the line of argument here. It feels a little more like a laundry list of interesting discussion topics, but the analysis that glues it all together feels a little thin. Granted, your topic calls for more analysis than many research topics would. But I do think that without a bit more of an argument from you about how physique should or should not matter in the performing arts, it’s hard to know what to do with all of these examples. I also think that they often deal with politically charged identity categories like race and gender, and so it’s important to delve into the specifics of the examples: which are racist and which critique racist structures? which are sexist and which are feminist? which walk a thin, indeterminate line? All in all, some really neat research and compelling list of provocative examples and questions, but this might need just a bit more organization and argument in order to feel like it’s fully coming together…

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