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CaMD Scholar Katherine Wang ’21 Explores White Elitism and Racial Fetishism in Ballet

From ballet’s historical association with social status to the cultural appropriation and racial fetishism in numerous pieces, ballet exemplifies white elitism, according to Katherine Wang ’21. Wang’s presentation, titled “Turning Over a White Stage: Disrupting White-Affirming Racial Fetishism in Elite White Concert Dance,” took place virtually last Friday night and marked the end of the Community and Multicultural Development (CaMD) Scholar Presentation series for the 2020-2021 school year.

Wang stated her appreciation for the opportunity to unpack her thoughts and emotions by exploring the socio-political implications behind ballet, especially given her experience of dancing as a child. 

“I grew up doing ballet in a somewhat racially diverse environment, but I still always felt I was playing white. And that’s actually a part of the reason why I liked it, this feeling of prestige and power and lineage. But it still felt obvious or maybe it’s only obvious now that I was only playing at whiteness: at the idea of something unattainable,” said Wang. 

She continued, “I see this because being an Asian American dancer around other Asian American dancers didn’t change or subvert this, it only strengthened this ideal as something unattainable but coveted and what has become evident, both implicit in my experiences as a dancer, and also explicit throughout my research is that more representation alone is not enough to change white elitism.”

Throughout the presentation, Wang showed clips from famous ballet pieces like “Arabian Coffee” from “The Nutcracker” and excerpts from “Le Bayadère” to demonstrate instances of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation ignorant of the complex historical contexts of non-white cultures. Wang noted that along with the choreography, numerous elements of stagecraft such as costuming were inappropriately sexualized, reflecting the “white imagination” that emphasized racial fetishism, white elitism, and exoticism.

“If this stance is a figment of the white imagination and if the culture is actually being defined through the white gaze, then the inaccurate sexual component is motivated by white sexual desire. So in other words, white choreographers create this exotic and central fantasy of Arabia to fulfill their own repressed sexual desires and motives… Plus, the sexuality of ‘Arabian Coffee’ only reinforces the white elites of pure superiority by reinforcing white modesty and purity as compared to exotic promiscuity. So in the way that we purposefully misrepresent ‘Arabian Coffee’ to fulfill their sexual desires, they still assert their own racial supremacy,” said Wang.

Alexandra Koch-Liu ’22, an attendee of Wang’s presentation, expressed her gratitude for Wang’s thorough research and specific examples—especially her proposed solutions for uprooting white elitism from concert dance. 

“As a ballet dancer, I am aware of the eurocentrism of ballet, but Katherine’s well-developed presentation really demonstrated how problematic the art form is, but also what we can do to change that… Through her detailed analysis, she demonstrated how normalized cultural perversion is in ballet. I am very grateful to have watched Katherine’s insightful presentation because she put a tremendous amount of effort into it and is not afraid to call things as they are,” wrote Koch-Liu in an email to The Phillipian

Wang stated her belief that there is a need for a structural reform of how concert dance is taught, consumed, and viewed—the first step being to encourage individuality and artistry, including moving away from conformity and the image of a white and ‘ideal’ ballerina. 

Wang also discussed the need for dance icons to be reframed, diversity to be platformed for the challenging of power hierarchies, and highlighted the importance of promoting more diverse forms of dance beyond ballet. Wang hopes this will challenge ideals of beauty and sexual empowerment, allowing one to explore reclamation.

Megan Cui ’21, a friend of Wang’s and presentation attendee, expressed how intrigued she felt about Wang’s presentation topic and commended Wang for her dedicated effort. Cui appreciated how outspoken and uncompromising Wang was in her research.

“As expected, her hard work paid off as her CaMD presentation was absolutely stellar. Like everyone there, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her gracefully deliver her meticulous research of the long-standing white elitism, male gaze, and cultural appropriation that have defined ballet. She patiently answered all of the audience’s questions, and I left her presentation feeling much more intrigued about the topic than I ever have,” wrote Cui in an email to The Phillipian

Judith Wombwell, Instructor in Theatre and Dance, served as Wang’s faculty advisor. Wombwell was honored and thankful to support Wang in her research and presentation process. 

“I am personally invested in breaking down and unraveling white supremacy culture and patriarchal systems in dance… And, of course, we bear personal responsibility to drive the change that needs to happen to support all students and reach the full potential of dance as a potent tool of communication, expression and representation. I am excited and hopeful for this work and see research as a huge support on this path. I sincerely hope that Katherine continues with her research, her choreography and her dance,” wrote Wombwell.