It Happened to Me: I Was Too White (But Not White Enough) for Hip-Hop Dance

Trying to make it in New York as a dancer is a humbling and sometimes humiliating experience. What I was not prepared for was the racial divisiveness in the hip-hop dance community and the accompanying white guilt that followed.

Feb 17, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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It was mid-January in New York City, and I had been standing in line for three-and-a-half hours to audition for Madonna. When I arrived early that morning, I wasn’t shocked to see the procession of hopefuls snaking down and around two city blocks. Madonna was in her urban cowboy phase, so there were literally thousands of dancers shivering away on Lafayette Street wearing bedazzled cowboy hats, suede pants and tiny tasseled tops. 
 
I was feeling fairly confident about my audition prospects. I knew there was pretty much no chance Madonna would pick me for her tour. But I also knew that just being seen by her choreographer, Mia Michaels, would help my career. As I inched closer and closer to the door, my heart began to race, pumping warm blood into my frozen phalanges. Suddenly, a woman with a clipboard walked out.
 
“There are too many of you left to see, so we’ve decided to typecast,” she said in a bored voice. She scanned the line until her eyes rested on a tall, dark-skinned woman with a tuft of honey Afro sticking out from her sequined hat.
 
“You,” she said. “Come with me.”

“The rest of you, thank you very much.”
 
Trying to make it in New York as a dancer is a humbling and sometimes humiliating experience. One week you score a great job dancing at the Bollywood Awards, the next, you are putting on a questionable half-top and pumping up crowds at Bar Mitzvahs. I was prepared for all of that. What I was not prepared for was the racial divisiveness in the hip-hop dance community and the accompanying white guilt that followed.

One time I performed with a group for “Showtime! at the Apollo.” My fellow black and Latino company members walked onstage first, and I, a dark-haired, non-threatening Italian girl, followed close behind. As soon as I appeared, the crowd began to boo. It was all I could do to make it through the number without crying. But afterward, I convinced myself it was deserved. Because what right did I have to step foot onstage at the Apollo?!

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Hundreds and hundreds of auditions and hundreds of callbacks later, my experiences didn’t change. Choreographers pulled me aside to tell me, “You got this, girl. I can’t wait to work with you.” Then I’d get the “thank you very much” from the producer.

Why? I looked too young, they said. My nose was too big, they said. I needed to lose five pounds, they said. Or just silence...no reason given at all. I would find out later that the Dominican girl with the shaky technique got the job. Or the fiery redhead with the killer boobs (and not-so-killer rhythm). I started to connect the dots.

Maybe producers were only concerned about appealing to a distinct male aesthetic: all-American sexy or exotic, i.e., “ethnic.” Still, I had a hard time believing a girl-next-door brunette couldn’t find a job in this town. Was I blowing it all up because I wasn’t getting the jobs? Maybe I just wasn’t a very good dancer?

Trust me, I would have rather heard, “You weren’t good enough. You didn’t have the skills.” Those were things I could work on and control. I tried tarting it up instead, wearing hair extensions, losing weight, going to the tanning salon, lightening up my hair and adding blonde highlights, putting on what Carrie Bradshaw so aptly titled “ghetto gold,” my hoop earrings dangling from my ears like great yellow pretzels. Those angles mostly didn’t work. They certainly didn’t help me with the Knicks City Dancers.
 
Ah, the Knicks City Dancers. I auditioned for them year after year. Each time, I would join a small group of about 30 girls whittled down from more than 400. Each time, I would hit my routines nearly flawlessly. And each time I was shown the door.

I had a good friend from my college dance team days who became the captain, and then the coach, of the KCD. I slept over her house. I held her hair when she puked after one-too-many drinks. She sat in the judges’ row and gave me encouraging smiles. But she always looked a little uncomfortable. One year, she called me up on the phone and gave me a warning.

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“I don’t think you should come to auditions this year,” she said.
 
“How come?” I wondered. This was new.
 
“Well, we are only expecting to hire four new dancers. And we’re only looking for black girls and blondes. So...”
 
“Thanks for the tip.”
 
So the KCD, like many other commercial dance groups, had a racial quota. I showed up anyway, since I knew they auditioned all of the team members every year. It was possible one of those girls could screw up. But true to my friend’s word, the dance team hired only four dancers. You can bet none of them were Italian.
 
After my KDC experience, I had turned sour on commercial hip-hop dance. Instead, I immersed myself in the underground and concert dance scene for comfort. It was about who had a passion and a vision, and not who had the tightest abs, or the mocha skin, or the platinum hair. There, it was one hundred percent about talent.

I lucked out and was hired to be in an all-female hip-hop dance troupe. We performed on actual stages, with sets, and to audiences who were there just to see dance. I was in heaven. We had good buzz. Got solid reviews in the Times. Landed representation and tour dates. Finally, after nearly 20 years of training, and five years of soul-sucking auditioning, I was doing this for real.

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One Sunday afternoon, my company was working on a piece where we incorporated karate fighting into the choreography. My partner threw me down, and when I got up, I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know it then, but I had herniated a disc.

After a month of rehab and no improvement, I approached the director to discuss my future. We met in Union Square Park, across from NYU housing and the old Virgin Megastore. A loud digital clock counted down the milliseconds left in the day. I sat stiff and uncomfortable on a bench.
 
“I’ve been working really hard to push past this injury, but I think I’m going to need more time,” I told her. 
 
“I’m just worried you’re going to fall behind the other dancers,” she answered. “I don’t think I can guarantee you a spot in the company once we go out on tour.”
 
The tour was in two months, and the company had already found a dancer who auditioned to take my place in the first show. She was a Hispanic girl with short, pixie hair and a boyish punk style.
 
“Well, I’m not saying I want to leave the company. You know I work hard. You know that once this injury is gone, I’ll be giving you my all.” 
 
She paused. When she spoke again, she didn’t look me in the eye.
 
“The thing is, we do outreach and teach classes on tour. What are people going to think when they see you come in to teach hip-hop? I mean, you came here in a ruffled top with a rhinestone barrette in your hair.”
 
I felt my eyes burning. The digital clock numbers began to blur together into a shapeless orange smudge. This would be the end of my dance career.
 
She sighed heavily. “I mean, maybe if we put you in cornrows…”

After my injury, I tried desperately to rehabilitate and get back in the game, but my body wouldn’t let me. I think some part of my mind was ready to move on, too. I had trained as a dancer for two decades. It was all I knew to do and all I knew to be. But it broke my heart.

Now, as a writer and a new mom, I’m standing on wobbly legs, regaining a sense of self other than Wendy, The Dancer. My injury still prevents me from doing any more than a brisk walk, and hoisting up my toddler is becoming increasingly painful. But I love my life. And I loved being a dancer.

I just wish I could have shown the world how much.