Resources and Reflections on Cultural Equity and Racial Justice
Curated by Sarah Cecilia Bukowski
The live Google Doc linked above is a working compilation of resources, exercises, and personal essays gathered over the course of several months in response to renewed calls to raise awareness and promote systemic cultural shifts in the ballet field. I believe deeply in this work and am motivated to share and engage with my community to support, elevate, and further the work that is already being done. This document is meant to actively engage its audience! There is public access via the link above for sharing and commenting. I update content on an ongoing basis with upcoming events, newly published articles, and personal reflections.
I am grateful to mentors and colleagues past and present who have engaged with me in long email exchanges, video chats, and brave, impassioned conversations on these topics. For many, it was our first time engaging in this way. For others, these are narratives we have shared and bonded over for many years. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to connect on a more personal level or use any of this content for other purposes: or follow me on Instagram @sarah__cecilia.
Peace and love,
Sarah Cecilia Bukowski



Freelancers (and all dancers!) in the room:

Dance Artists’ National Collective

Come to a meeting! Take part! All are welcome!

Community Response Meetings: every Monday at 1pm Eastern / 10am Pacific



Upcoming events


Resource lists


Dance and ballet-specific reading material


Personal testimonials from Black dancers




Racial justice movements


Anti-racist reading material


Podcasts (available on most platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify)

  • 1619 (New York Times Magazine)
  • Code Switch (NPR)
  • Dance & Stuff
  • The Dance Union
  • Movers & Shapers: A Dance Podcast
  • Dance Behind the Screen (from kNOwBOX dance)
  • Speaking of Race
  • Black History for White People
  • Your Attention Please (Hulu/iHeartRadio)


Nonprofit governance reading material


Racial equity consultants and resources for anti-racism training



Note: buy books from local booksellers (best find a local Black-owned bookstore)


Use to purchase books online from local and independent booksellers.




General anti-racism education

  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
  • How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder
  • Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown
  • Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown



By Ashley Astwood

Student Life Program Manager

Columbia University School of General Studies


Self Reflection: Identity Mapping

How do you identify? Use the following categories to self-identify group memberships:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender identity/expression
  • Sexual orientation
  • Familial roles
  • Professional roles
  • Religious affiliation
  • Education
  • Physical/mental dis/ability
  • Socioeconomic class
  • First language
  • Other


Now look at your answers and ask yourself the following questions:

    • Have I experienced privilege because of this group membership?
    • Have I been disadvantaged because of this group membership?
  • Note: for some group memberships, you can experience both privilege and disadvantage
  • Which of these memberships are visible, and which are invisible?
  • Which of these memberships are most fundamental to who I am?


Before you can understand allyship or be an ally, you must understand your own identity and privilege.

    • Privilege: a special benefit or advantage that may be earned or unearned
  • What is your definition of privilege?
    • Identity: the qualities, characteristics, or beliefs that make a person who they are
  • What is your definition of identity?


What is an ally? Reflect on the below definitions to create your own:

  • Someone who stands with or advocates for individuals and groups other than their own
  • Member of a dominant social group who is working to end systems of oppression that give them greater privilege and power based on social group membership
  • Being an ally doesn’t necessarily mean you fully understand what it feels like to be oppressed


Components of active allyship:

  • Awareness
    • Self awareness
    • Systemic awareness
  • Action
    • Educating yourself or others, marching, petitioning, listening, etc.
  • Integration
    • Bringing it together: true understanding of our awareness through action


Allyship: Dos & Don’ts

  • DO be open to listening
  • DO be aware of your implicit biases
  • DO your research to learn more about the history of the struggle in which you are participating
  • DO the inner work to figure out a way to acknowledge how you participate in oppressive systems
  • DO the outer work and figure out how to change the oppressive systems
  • DO use your privilege to amplify (digitally and in-person) historically suppressed voices
  • DO learn how to listen and accept criticism with grace, even if it’s uncomfortable
  • DON’T compare struggles or play the “oppression Olympics”. Listen with empathy knowing that you are not the focus and that while your struggle is valid, it is not measurable against another’s and may not be the issue at hand.
  • DON’T take credit for the labor of those who are marginalized and did the work before you stepped into the picture.
  • DON’T assume that every member of an underinvested community feels oppressed. Black people and POC are not a monolith.


To be an ally is to:

  • Stand up even when you feel scared.
  • Transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it.
  • Acknowledge that even though you feel pain, the conversation is not about you.
  • Be willing to own your mistakes and de-center yourself.
  • Understand that your education is up to you and no one else.



By Ashley Johnson

Senior Director of Student Engagement

Columbia University School of General Studies


  • Bias: the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way because of allowing personal opinions to influence your judgment
    • Implicit bias
      • Attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect our actions, decisions, and understanding
      • Can be positive OR negative
      • Formed over a lifetime as a result of exposure to direct and indirect messages
    • Explicit bias
      • The attitudes and beliefs we have about a person or group on a conscious level. Much of the time, these biases and their expression arise as the direct result of a perceived threat.
      • Expressions of explicit biases like hate speech and discrimination occur as the result of deliberate thought and choice–it is intentional
  • Microaggressions are one outcome of bias
    • Defined as: brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to the target person or group
    • Microassault: an explicit derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions
      • Example: “Why are you always angry?” when race is brought up
      • Example: mocking language styles, imitating accents, racial jokes, racial symbols, racial slurs
    • Microinsult: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s heritage or identity
      • Example: “You speak English so well!” or “You’re so articulate!” to a person of color (implies you would expect otherwise)
      • Example: asking a person how they got into college or how they got their job
    • Microinvalidation: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of an othered group (also known as racial gaslighting); when a person’s comment undermines the experience of a certain group of people.
      • Example: “Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough!”
      • Example: “Racism doesn’t exist in today’s society.”
  • Combating Biases
    • Reducing/eliminating one’s biases requires time, intention, and unlearning
    • Recognize and accept the daily role that biases play in our lives and in the lives of others
    • Reduce implicit bias
      • Focus on seeing people as individuals and not as representatives of their identities
      • Work intentionally to address and consciously change the stereotypes that you have and how your responses to people and/or situations may be rooted in biases


Examples of Racial Microaggressions

A good exercise would be to think of some dance-related examples. Use the personal testimonial articles linked at the end of this document for reference.


Theme Microaggression Message
Alien in own land

When Asian Americans and Latinx Americans are assumed to be foreign-born

“Where are you from?”

“Where were you born?”

“You speak good English.”

A person asking an Asian American to teach them words in their native language.

You are not American.

You are a foreigner.

You are “other”.

You do not belong here.

Ascription of intelligence

Assigning intelligence to a person of color on the basis of race

“You are a credit to your race.”

“You are so articulate.”

Asking an Asian person to help with a Math or Science problem

People of color are generally not as intelligent as whites.

It is unusual for someone of your race to be intelligent.

All asians are intelligent and good in math/science.

Color blindness

Statements that indicate that a white person does not want to acknowledge race

“When I look at you, I don’t see color.”

“America is a melting pot.”

“There is only one race, the human race.”

Denying a person of color’s racial/ethnic experiences.

Assimilate/acculturate to the dominant culture.

Denying the individual as as racial/cultural being.

Assumption of criminality

A person of color is presumed to be dangerous, criminal, or deviant on the basis of their race

A white person clutching their purse or checking their wallet as a person of color approaches or passes.

A store owner following a customer of color.

A white person waits to ride the next elevator.

You are a criminal.

You are going to steal.

You are poor.

You do not belong.

You are dangerous.

Denial of individual racism

A statement made when white people deny their racial biases

“I’m not a racist. I have several Black friends.”

“As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.”

I am immune to racism since I have friends of color.

Your racial oppression is no different than my gender oppression. I can’t be racist. I’m like you.

Myth of meritocracy

Statements which assert that race does not play a role in life successes

“I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

“Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race.

People of color are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder.

Pathologizing cultural values and communication styles

The notion that values and communication styles of the dominant culture are ideal

Asking a Black person: “Why do you have to be so loud/animated? Calm down.”

Dismissing an individual who brings up race and culture in work or school settings.

Assimilate to the dominant culture.

Leave your cultural baggage outside.


Strategies & Techniques for Interrupting Oppression

By Ashley Astwood

Student Life Program Manager

Columbia University School of General Studies


When you witness or experience an act of oppression:

  • First, determine whether or not to engage


If you feel comfortable engaging the person in conversation:

  • Try to connect with them and meet them where they’re at: what are their needs? Why did they do what they did?
  • Tell them why you decided to talk with them and invite them into a dialogue
  • Use “I” statements and speak from personal experience
  • Address the behavior/action
  • Give them the grace ot make mistakes
  • Circle back and reflect at the end of the conversation
  • Challenge the behavior, not the person
  • Ask open-ended, clarifying questions
  • Know that the other person’s perspective is their reality
  • Talk about emotions and describe feelings in ways that can help others understand
  • Recognize that we all have prejudices and biases; always be interruptible yourself.


Responding to microaggressions

  • Microresistance: small-scale individual and/or collaborative efforts that empower targeted people and allies to cope with, respond to, and/or challenge microaggressions to ultimately dismantle systems of oppression.
    • Examples
      • Speak up
      • Challenge the system when you are in positions to do so
      • Teach others about microaggression and microresistance
  • Microaffirmations: acts of kindness that occur wherever people wish to help others succeed.
    • Examples
      • Active listening
      • Recognizing and validating experiences
      • Affirming emotional reactions


If you offend someone and are confronted about your behavior:

  • Focus on the impact of your words or actions instead of your intent
    • If someone tells you that they feel targeted because of their identity, believe them.
  • Listen
    • Try to connect with the other person’s feelings and needs
    • Allow them to tell their story
    • Avoid offering advice
    • Take responsibility
    • Avoid “buts” and “ifs”; “I’m sorry if I offended you”
  • Say thank you!



By Ashley Johnson & Jack Schneiderman

Columbia University School of General Studies


Oppression: power historically formed, perpetuated over time, allowing certain mainstream or dominant groups to assume and maintain a dominant position over other marginalized groups




Types of intersectional oppression


  • Institutional: the idea that one group is better than another (supremacy) and has the right to control the other gets embedded in the institutions of society
  • Internalized: a complex of inferiority whereby the dominant group perpetuates the internalization of the idea of inferiority by oppressed people
  • Interpersonal: the idea that one intergroup is better than another and has the right to control the other; gives permission and reinforcement for individual members of the dominant intergroup to personally disrespect and mistreat individuals in the oppressed intergroup (ex: colorism within racial groups)
  • Ideological: the core idea that one group is better than another (supremacy) and has the right to control the other group


Oppressive ideologies (also intersectional)


  • Patriarchy: a social system characterized by current and historic unequal power relations between non-men and men whereby non-men are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed.
  • Capitalism: an economic system where private entities own the factors of production (entrepreneurship, capital goods, natural resources, and labor). There is a dependence on profit and an exploitation of labor that has a global impact. It encourages a surplus of labor and encourages other forms of oppression.
  • White supremacy: an ideology of exploitation and oppression of peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent that impacts systems and institutions for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.


Examples of byproducts (or systems) of oppressive ideologies (also intersectional)


  • Racism: individual, systemic, and institutional actions that give rise to marginalization and inflict varying degrees of harm on marginalized persons; institutional structures and norms that sustain white privilege and permit the ongoing subordination of marginalized persons.
  • Classism: the institutional, cultural, and individual set of practices and beliefs that assign different value to people according to their socio-economic class.
  • Heterosexism: the stigmatization, denial, and/or denigration of anything non-heterosexual used to justify the mistreatment of others
  • Ageism: prejudiced thoughts and discriminatory actions based on difference in age towards youth and older adults
  • Ableism: prejudiced thoughts and discriminatory actions based on differences in physical, mental, and/or emotional ability; usually that of able-bodied/minded persons against people with illness, disabilities, or less developed skills/talents.
  • Xenophobia: the fear and hatred of that which is perceived to be foreign or “different”


Examples of consequences of byproducts of oppressive ideologies (sigh… also intersectional)


  • White supremacy → racism, colonialism → colorism, healthcare bias, criminal legal system bias, school to prison pipeline
  • Capitalism → classism, ableism, ageism → housing insecurity, hiring bias
  • Patriarchy → heterosexism → hate crimes, wage inequality


Reflection questions


  • How are the four types of oppression interconnected?
  • Can you think of oppression in popular culture? Which system perpetuates it?
  • How has oppression contributed to different aspects of your life?
  • In what ways do our identities impact how we operate within oppressive systems?
  • How can we disrupt systems of oppression at an individual or collective level?
  • What are some examples of resistance to oppression?



By Ashley Johnson

Senior Director of Student Engagement

Columbia University School of General Studies


What is allyship?

  • Active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarily with a group of marginalized people
  • A lifelong process rooted in building relationships founded in trust, consistency, and accountability


Allyship & identity terms

  • Target vs. Agent identities
    • Agent: Members of dominant social identity groups privileged by birth or acquisition who knowingly or unknowingly exploit and reap unfair advantage over members of target groups.
    • Target: Members of social identity groups who are discriminated against, marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed, or exploited by an oppressor and an oppressor’s system of institutions without identity apart from the target group and compartmentalized in defined roles.
  • How do our identities connect to allyship?
    • Recognizing that our identities will often have a large impact on how we are able to understand the systemic issues other identities (specifically target groups) face.


Allyship & privilege

  • Our privileged identities are often the lens through which we initially view allyship
    • What is a privileged or agent identity in the United States?
    • What is a marginalized or target identity in the United States?
  • Allyship is using your privileged identity or identities to disrupt the oppression of marginalized identities
    • Bystander intervention
    • Disagreeing with harmful rhetorics
    • Naming oppression for what it is: racism, sexism, discrimination, transphobia


Day-to-day allyship: reflection space 

  • How much space am I taking up in conversations?
  • How are our identities taking up space? Physical space? Verbal space? Non-verbal space? 
  • How am I building trust across others identities? 
  • How am  I acting out of genuine interest in challenging larger, oppressive power structures? 
  • How am I turning the spotlight away from me and towards the voices of others  who are marginalized, silenced and/or ignored? 
  • How am I giving credit where credit is due? 
  • How am I engaging in conversations with people of shared identity and privilege about the oppression of others? 


Pitfalls of performative allyship

  • Allyship NOT self-defined: the title does not come from yourself, it comes from the marginalized communities and persons you seek to ally yourself with 
  • Not about acting out of guilt, but out of responsibility 
  • Not openly acknowledging and discussing your privileges– surface level work 
  • Not taking guidance and direction from the people you seek to work with– you think that YOU or others with your identity have all of the answers 
  • You expect to be educated and consoled by the marginalized groups you seek to work with; you don’t do your own research on oppression and the impact of systemic issues 
  • Expecting praise, rewards or special recognition for “doing the work”



  • How does understanding personal identities impact our ability to practice thoughtful allyship?
  • How can we be the best allies within spaces we occupy while acknowledging our own identities, power, and privilege?
  • How can I reflect upon my own practice and understanding of allyship to know my purpose in the community, the values I bring to the community, the impact I want to have on the community, and the biggest challenges impacting my community?



By Sarah Cecilia Bukowski

June 2020


BLACK LIVES MATTER. Police brutality has no place in our society and I refuse to be complacent. We are living through a social, economic, and cultural catastrophe that we must change. We must commit to action now. You can participate by educating yourself on Black history and anti-racism, volunteering in local efforts to combat racism, joining peaceful protests and demonstrations in your community, and voting in local and national elections.


I could never imagine the pain of losing a loved one the way that countless families and communities lost George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Mario Woods, Oscar Grant, and so many more. I cannot pretend to know how it feels to carry a collective history of oppression and violence as burdensome as that of Black Americans. But I feel the injustice viscerally in my body. I feel the knot in my stomach, the tension in my muscles, the rage, frustration, and overwhelming sadness rising in my throat, the tears welling in my eyes. I raise my fist together with those in my community and feel a surge of power and a glimmer of hope. It is vital that we open ourselves to feel these personal, physical manifestations of grief and anger if we are to truly unite in solidarity with Black people. How does racial injustice make you feel? Where and how do you feel it in your body? What are you doing about it?


Together we must work to dismantle the deeply ingrained systems of oppression that fuel violence and enable racism in this country. Intersectional systems of oppression are perpetuated by overt actions of violence and hatred as much as they depend on the complacency, willful ignorance, and apathy of privilege and tradition. Look back at history. We got here somehow. Where we go from here depends entirely on us. Everyone can participate by intentionally being actively anti-racist and committing to anti-racism in their existing life and work. Dance companies and arts organizations must integrate anti-racism deeply and permanently into their mission. What can dance companies do now? What can we do to support and sustain effective and lasting change?


Artists and arts institutions have a moral responsibility to speak to and for our society as it is now and to the cultural change we wish to see. Art and life reflect one another. It is time we take a hard look at ourselves and determine how we can contribute to meaningful change NOW. How can we reflect on our values and commit to actions that support and uplift communities of color?


The ballet world remains rife with systemic oppression at all levels that can no longer be ignored. It is not a question of if racism exists in ballet, it is a question of how we address its root causes directly and openly. It is beyond time that classical Western arts institutions work to pay more than lip service to the cause of “diversity” thinly veiled as tokenism. I remain troubled by the difficult stories I can share from my own training and performing career in classical ballet, and it is even more troubling to know that I am not alone in these experiences. Times are certainly changing, but change tends to be slow in art forms like ballet that are deeply ingrained in traditional practices, patriarchy, and white supremacy. How can ballet speak to the experiences and identities of all people?


Dance is a visual art form and bodies are political. These facts need to be openly acknowledged and taken into account as our leaders plan performance seasons, commission works, instruct and guide students, and coach professional dancers. Racism creeps insidiously into our dance studios and onto our stages far too often. Waking up to our biases in order to change the way we look at dancers and dancing requires rigorous self-examination, forgiveness, and a steadfast commitment to change. I ask you this because I have asked myself the same difficult question: When and how have you encountered racist attitudes and implicit bias in your dance career, whether it was directed at you or at a colleague? What did you do to address it? If you did nothing, what will you do now?


Dance is for everyone. Open and accessible discussion of racism in dance begins with meaningful action to include the experiences and hear the voices of people of all backgrounds at all levels of intersection with the arts: students, teachers, performers, creators, collaborators, audiences, donors, scholars, board members, presenters, theaters, and advocates for the arts must raise our voices and use our creativity and passion to enact real and lasting change to the systems that keep people of color from positions of leadership and visibility in our various art forms and in society as a whole. Cultural representation must be present at all levels of arts organizations in order to truly encompass all communities. Ballet must examine its relationship to historical whiteness and decenter its privilege. Ballet is not the most important dance form and is not the root of all other dance forms. Dancers should be cultivated holistically as people with a wide cultural outlook and variety of experiences and intersections with movement beyond classical ballet and other Eurocentric dance forms. It is not enough to invite communities of color into an existing institution centered around whiteness. The structure of the institution itself must change and trust must be built  in communities of color in order for everyone to feel truly recognized and welcome. How can performance programming, school curricula, and funding sources reflect and connect with a diverse community?


Art speaks, heals, and unites people and that is why we do what we do. We do not create art in a vacuum; we create as part of a society that reflects our personal experiences and biases, including those we might not want to see. As artists we must be activists; we must show that we see everyone in the work that we do and the art that we create and support. We must examine the processes and institutions in which we create. We must question whether these processes and institutions are actively engaged in promoting social justice and representing a multiplicity of voices reflective of our society. We must refuse to engage with processes and institutions that actively perpetuate racism or passively accept the benefits of racism. What conversations and actions can you initiate with your community of collaborators, presenters, and supporters? How can dance companies seek out opportunities to participate in larger discussions and presentations of arts activism? How can a mission of risk-taking, collaboration, and experimentation speak to issues of social justice in the dance community and the world in which we live?


I believe this can be an opportunity for dance companies to reflect collectively and work together in a different way. With countless performances cancelled or postponed this summer and beyond there remains a deep and pressing need for our voices to speak together. We must radically rethink institutional structures, organizational hierarchies, power dynamics, and internal cultures in order to dismantle the broken system and build something entirely new from this crisis. Elevate the voices of dancers and young people and encourage current leaders to cede their power and privilege. Remember that the culture of an organization is led by the culture of those in power. What would it look like to distribute power more equitably at all levels of a dance company? What can be created from this necessary interrogation, innovation, and change?


I don’t need to tell you that dancers and creators are hurting right now and grappling with the future shape of our art form. I don’t have the answers, but I am so tired of sitting around waiting for someone else to do something. If there is anything I’m learning from this global pandemic, social catastrophe, and humanitarian crisis it is that we are all delicately interconnected. We must go beyond survival mode and ask ourselves what power and privileges might need to perish in order to create a new future. Our work as dancers is indelibly connected to the movement for Black lives, and the changes we make to our creative culture are essential to dismantling white supremacy and dissolving the roots of violence, hatred, and bigotry in our art form and in our society.


We must continue to push forward from reflection to action. Do not mince words. Do not apologize. Difficult conversations are necessary. You might mess up, you might say or do the wrong thing along the way and that is part of the learning process. It is important to listen with patience and empathy. Listen even if you don’t understand. Listen until you do. See your privilege. Check your privilege. Use your privilege to actively oppose hatred and oppression. Righteous anger IS loving support. Silence is violence. Speak the truth and stand together in peace and solidarity.


By Sarah Cecilia Bukowski

July 2020


I identify as a person of mixed race or mixed heritage. I do not identify with a specific place of origin, hometown, or home culture. I am a foreign-born U.S. American citizen. My mother is an immigrant and recently naturalized U.S. American citizen of Costa Rican national origin and colonized Indigenous descent. She was born and raised in Costa Rica and has lived outside her homeland for over 40 years. My father is a white U.S. American of third generation immigrant Polish, Irish, and German ancestry, born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Growing up all of these backgrounds were alive and present in my life to varying degrees and I strive to explicitly include and embody my full identity, not as half anything, but as a whole and complete being with a unique story to tell.


My parents met in Costa Rica when my father was in the Peace Corps (she was learning English, he was learning Spanish… the rest is history). They lived and travelled extensively through North and South America for several years before I was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, a city near the Caribbean coastal region known as La Guajira. We left when I was a babe in arms and I have yet to return. I grew up in central Pennsylvania until I was 11, at which point my family relocated to Buenos Aires, Argentina for three years. I attended high school outside of Kansas City and from there embarked on my journey as a dancer in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Portland, Oregon. I am currently based in New York City. 


This meandering trajectory through life means that I do not have a single place that I identify as being “from”; rather, I have a wealth of places I can identify as deeply familiar and culturally impactful in my life. For me, “home” means many things: community, biological and chosen family, friends, colleagues, support systems, geographies, topographies, and familiar sounds, sights, smells, and tastes. I consider this to be a true blessing, even if it means I have to tell long stories to properly introduce myself. I am proud of every part of me and every experience that makes me who I am today.


The video linked here (Amanda) speaks concisely to the experience of being a person of mixed race and the perceptions and prejudices mixed people are subject to in their daily lives. My own experiences are poignantly reflected in hers, specifically: being a child confused by the idea of selecting only one race, “other”, or “two or more races” on official forms and having the race of my partner, community, or friends projected or imposed upon me.


I am tall, long-limbed, and caramel-brown-skinned with dark curly hair (too short now to show its ringlets), dark almond-shaped eyes, and a blend of features that seems to defy easy categorization. I often think about what it means to be white and not present as white, and to be of Indigenous Latinx extraction and present “ambiguously” so that others project their own assumptions of my race onto me without my knowledge or awareness. This has happened consistently throughout my life and more often than I can ever know in my dance career. Guessing games, projections, and assumptions of another person’s identity are never ok. When asked respectfully I am always happy to share my heritage, ancestry, and personal story because I am proud of it. Too often people make their own assumptions about my identity rather than ask with respectful curiosity. 


Note: “Where are you from?” is not the right question. I resent that question for so many reasons! I want to know what kind of information someone is seeking when they are unsure about my race or ethnicity. First of all, how well do I know this person? What are they really asking? Are they simply curious? Are they looking for a way to categorize me? Are they looking to share something in common with me? Do they genuinely want to get to know me better? Are they seeking to understand my perspective in whatever situation or context we are in? What specifically is being asked? If you’re curious about my heritage, please express that curiosity respectfully and ask a specific question!



By Sarah Cecilia Bukowski

August 2020


In ballet school, girls do one set of things and boys do another set of things.


In ballet companies, “girls” do one set of things and men do another set of things.


Guess what happens in ballet leadership?


The 21st century and the millennial generation have shed new light on the inherent fallacies in existing structures of gender and sexuality in our society. As usual, ballet’s attitudes and aesthetics lag a couple centuries behind. The “girls” are still expected to be as slim, pretty, and demure as the characters they portray; they are identical and disposable, pitted in competition against one another to fulfill a perpetually unattainable standard of beauty and perfection. The men are strong, traditionally masculine, and consummately in control, whether they’re lifting, turning, and manipulating their female partners or calling the shots at the front of the studio or in the boardroom. They too are held to rigid standards, but their inherent power lies in the value created by their scarcity and the outside freedoms permitted as a result. This stark binary is not only unjust, it is absolutely baseless and invalid; the existing structures and parameters in which ballet currently operates are not only patriarchal and paternalistic but actively unfeminist and anti-feminist in addition to being deeply racist, heteronormative, and elitist.


The cracks in the system have been there for too long. It’s time to explode the gender binary in ballet. It’s time for a deep aesthetic shift in how we envision standards and ideals in ballet beyond gender and race to encompass the individual, actualized, modern identities of the whole range of human experience.


When I think about how the ballet’s gender binary has personally affected my self-image and identity, I have to go way, way back and all the way through. What was it that first attracted me to ballet? I was so young–barely three years old when I saw The Nutcracker–but I can distinctly recall my deep attraction to the magic of bodies, light, colors, and music swelling and flowing together as one. I had to know what it was like to be inside that. I went home and imagined myself inside. I’d close my eyes and dance madly around the house to classical music on the radio. Dance classes came soon after, naturally. That was when the fascination with the puzzle of the body kicked in. I could tell my body to do things, I could shape my body using verbal, visual, and aural prompts. It was more than pretend; it was real. I felt fully engaged and deeply in love. And I showed promise to boot: I was rail thin, long-limbed, naturally flexible, and sharp of mind and body. Ballet quickly became my life.


Ballet school was full of pretty little white girls and a scant peppering of often transient little boys. I was shy, awkward, and visibly different: I was tall and brown and I wore glasses. While I never quite fit in, I was in the ballet studio more than anywhere else. Most of my childhood memories are at ballet, not at home with my family, not in school with my peers, not in the yard or the park with the neighborhood kids. I never questioned it because I loved it, and what was I missing anyway? I got to do this amazing thing for several hours a day, six days a week. I got to miss school to be on stage. From a very young age I had responsibility, accountability, discipline, purpose, and a stated career path. I was fortunate to be so self-motivated and at the same time innocent enough to be blind–in a way, literally–to the cruelty of the world around me.


I started wearing glasses around the age of seven, just as I was getting on to the professional track in ballet school (yes, it happens that young). Every few months I’d go back to the eye doctor for tests, look at the letters on the wall, cover one eye and then the other. I’d pick out new frames as my lenses got thicker and thicker. But I couldn’t wear my glasses in ballet class. It wasn’t allowed, it wasn’t “safe”, it wasn’t part of the uniform or the image of the ballerina. As a consequence I grew to understand dance more through feeling than through visual feedback. Every day I’d fold up my glasses and place them neatly on top of the little pile of street clothes inside my locker. I’d stand at the front of class to see the teacher demonstrate steps as clearly as possible. In my nearsightedness I could only look down at my own body rather than forward into the mirror. I couldn’t see into the mirror clearly enough to critique myself and I couldn’t see the other bodies around me clearly enough to compare myself against them. Instead I worked by feeling; I learned to sense my body in space and among the other dancers. This experiential unfolding into the sensation of dance became a secret blessing; I wasn’t bound by the tyranny of my own visual judgment. I learned ballet in soft focus, and everything looks better in soft focus. Even today, after many years of contact lenses and laser eye surgery, I find myself more peaceful and productive without a mirror. I hope that I never have to rely on my reflection to see how something feels or to know who I am.


In addition to being visually impaired, I was also a beautifully naive child. I didn’t know I had “bad” feet or that my height and proportions made me an anomaly and an unmanageable partner. I took my teachers at their word when they said I had to be as pale as possible to be allowed on stage, when they said it wouldn’t make sense for me to play Clara, a little German girl. I also had very few role models or idols to whom I could truly relate. The dancer I most loved watching was Rudolf Nureyev, the great Russian powerhouse, and I certainly would never look like him. Still I devoured videotapes of his performances, awed by the darkly vibrant animal energy that made every ballerina fade into the background. There was a growing dissonance between what I admired and what I was being taught in ballet school. I knew what I loved and why I loved it, and it wasn’t until my teenage years that I learned about all the things I couldn’t change that held me back from my vision of myself in the ballet world: my complexion, my height, my feet, my technical strengths and weaknesses. If I were a boy, I’d be Nureyev. Instead I was always just the girl who never quite fit.


To compound things further, my family moved at key points in my training. At 11 years old I left the rigorous training program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and ended up in a small independent school in Buenos Aires. There were no more than ten students in my level and age range (all female), and just enough space to fit us in the tiny second floor studio. I was learning to speak Spanish and my shyness compounded in an atmosphere where I was yet further removed by otherness. To compensate for a lack of performance opportunities and training my teacher regularly took me to the Teatro Colón opera house to see lavish productions–mostly 19th century classics–by Argentina’s national ballet company and American touring companies. It was there that I began to witness the classical aesthetic at work: exaggerated, swaggering masculinity and hyper-stylized, otherworldly femininity. It was beautiful and impressive, but I still didn’t quite see myself reflected on the stage. I dug into my practice, worked hard, and three years later my family relocated again, this time to the suburbs of Kansas City.


Through my high school years I attended Kansas City Ballet School. It was my first encounter with a school affiliated with a professional ballet company, and I was intimidated. Seeing professional dancers up close gave me an eye into the world that was fast approaching, but I still didn’t see anyone who looked like me. I remained painfully shy and though I excelled in my classwork I somehow continued to confound people with my odd combination of traits and qualities. At one point my teachers permitted me to take men’s class with the five or six teenage boys in my peer group. I was always a powerful jumper and I loved the feeling of flight since the very first time I was instructed to leap over a phone book in the middle of the studio at three or four years old. Men’s class, with its emphasis on big jumps, was the ultimate expression of that joy. Men’s class felt powerful and free, qualities so unlike the meticulous control and precision in pointe class and the intricate delicacy and softness of repertory variations class with the other girls. In men’s class there was dialogue, laughter, camaraderie, and room to express personal idiosyncrasies, strengths, and weaknesses. The boys could be different from one another while the girls had to be exact and stay in line.


The problem was that I wasn’t like the other girls. In daydreams I’d wonder what it was like to have long, shiny blonde hair, to be petite, delicate, blushing, and dainty, to be perfectly shaped like a tiny porcelain figurine. I didn’t exactly want to be that, I just always wondered. That part of me longed to play Giselle and Juliet, but I was always cast as the fiery Spanish Kitri or some other token role. I considered myself lucky on the rare occasion a boy happened to be tall enough to access my height and wingspan, and even then there was much elbowing of the face and kneeing of the groin. If there’s one thing I did consistently well, it was take up space! I was never easy to manipulate and defied categorization. My talent and drive were undeniable, but where was my place in it all? I positioned myself to find out, but I don’t think anything could have properly prepared me for the painful process of ballet company auditions that was set to burden the following ten years of my life. When I was told that I’d “never be a dancer with those feet” (white male physician, Pacific Northwest Ballet School, summer 2001), I underwent two invasive surgeries to remove the bone spurs that were impeding my ankle extension. It was never enough. To make matters worse, I went through puberty toward the end of high school and the changes to my body meant that the (white male) artistic director felt that I was “no longer fit” for the professional opportunity for which I’d already worked incredibly hard. I was devastated but undeterred. I moved to New York to attend Barnard College, secretly hoping to do a round of auditions, land a job, and leave school behind. Less than one year later I was packing my bags for an unpaid trainee position at Cincinnati Ballet.


As a young female dancer entering the world of professional ballet, you start at the bottom, and it’s a deep, deep bottom. It means working full time as an often unpaid or severely underpaid trainee, apprentice, or second company member for sometimes multiple years. It means you have to stand in the back, shut up, grovel to everyone, and compete for any small opportunities to advance, most of which never materialize. And all along you’re told you’re not working hard enough. My experience was no different. I was just an extra body that didn’t cost anyone anything. My personal needs, feelings, and viewpoints didn’t matter. I was essentially disposable and I could see it coming. I was fortunate to exit this damaging cycle after struggling through barely one season in Cincinnati, when a sympathetic older dancer directed me to Dance Theatre of Harlem. I’ll be indebted to her for the rest of my life. I packed my bags again, grateful to head back to New York.


Dance Theatre of Harlem saved my life. I was 20 years old and completely unmoored, adrift as an artist and as a young woman. Arthur Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem gave me mentorship, respect, and a true sense of support and encouragement for the very first time in my ballet training and career. After so many years of not fitting in, I finally felt a sense of belonging that was rooted not in sameness but in the harmony of difference. Every single dancer was wildly different, yet we were all clearly united in purpose and presence. I was nurtured to discover myself as more than just a dancer and to own what made me me. Mr. Mitchell was initially exasperated by me. One day in rehearsal he stopped, looked me in the eye, and said to me, “Sarah, don’t be dainty! Look at yourself, you’re a long, tall, powerful woman! Why would you try to be something you’re not?” He had a penchant for nicknames, and when he dubbed me “Sarah Long and Tall” it made me truly proud of those traits for the very first time. At DTH I wore flesh tone tights and shoes for the first time and portrayed strong, empowered female roles outside the classical canon while retaining and expanding the rigor and precision of my technique and personal style. I was actively encouraged to articulate and express my personality because it mattered. All of this absolutely blew my mind. The three years I spent at Dance Theatre of Harlem gave me the courage, audacity, and presence of mind to take all the crazy leaps of faith that followed.


And so I gave away most of my belongings and leapt to San Francisco, eager to explore what untold wonders California might have to offer. I cut my hair short and delved into more contemporary West Coast styles while keeping one eye to the traditional ballet world. When I accepted my first contract with Oakland Ballet I was expressly told that I’d be paid close to 20% less than my male counterpart, though I ended up doing at least 50% more work juggling featured soloist and corps roles. I shrugged this off as a matter of course. When I raised safety concerns about a proposed off-site promotional performance, the (white male) director looked stunned, like a woman had never said “no” to him in his life. I stuck by my refusal and continued to push back against his persistent and pervasive misogyny. Needless to say, despite excellent reviews and exemplary work I was not welcome back the following year, nor did I feel inclined to continue the relationship. I kept running up against these attitudes as I sought my place in the San Francisco Bay Area dance landscape. After being invited to audition for a regional chamber ballet company, the (white male) director told me I was too tall for any of his men to “handle me”, a fact which he could have known by the height clearly stated at the top of my resume. By that point I was so tired of hearing that same tired excuse over and over that I refused to accept it. I pushed back, called him out, and was again met with the same stunned, vacant look of a powerful man facing a clear and defiant “no” from a young woman. I walked out of that room even taller. Since then I’ve danced with two of those very men.


In spite of all this I found a way to thrive in San Francisco. I developed deep and meaningful connections with choreographers–many of them female–and dance partners–for many of whom I would ordinarily have been deemed “too tall”. I relished exploring the possibilities in contemporary ways of making and perceiving ballet. I collaborated in the creation of dozens of new works in which my identity intrinsically mattered. Ballet’s gender binary remained in the background in the trappings of pointe shoes and virtuoso partnering, but I felt myself alive in the ever more prevalent opportunities to purposefully level the playing field of gender dynamics with my dancing and personal expression. Auditions remained the sticky point. Years of freelancing had me longing for the stability and prestige of a ballet company. I quickly realized that I’d have to grow my hair long again in order to land a job; short-haired female ballet dancers are inherently seen as aesthetically misaligned with the idealized image of the ballerina. So at 27 years old I slapped on a hairpiece, slayed some auditions (wearing flesh tone tights, mind you), landed a job, packed my bags yet again and headed for Portland.


[ 8/14/20 WHEW! There’s a lot coming out of me and yet another chapter or two (the real juicy ones) to tackle. To be continued… ]

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