Sterling Heights

Michigan youth uses online ballet classes to increase diversity, accessibility

SoEun “Sonya” Park, was fed up with watching economic and racial barriers hold back dancers who shared her passion for ballet. But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic set in that she was able to take action. In June last year, the junior at Troy's International Academy East used the time she had in isolation to establish her own ballet group, Stairway for Ballet, with a goal to make the dance genre more accessible to fellow residents. 

“To be frank, it was something I wanted to do and work on for a long time but I never got the chance to,” Park says. “I originally wanted to do ballet classes in-person, but because of the pandemic, I moved it to a virtual experience.” 
 
SoEun Park demonstrates ballet moves to her online class.Stairway for Ballet currently provides free online classes for children ages 5 to 10, via Zoom, in an initiative called the Step Program. With more than 100 registered participants, and an average of 40 to 50 dancers each session, the classes appear to be filling a need. 

“The responses have been vastly positive,” says Park. “I am so grateful for the amount of support I am getting from those around me and the people who are involved in the Step Program.”

For some parents, it means being able to support their children’s love of ballet, even in a time of crisis. In online feedback, one family shared the financial barriers they face to send their daughter to classes, saying she had been “begging to learn ballet but we can't afford it”, and another saying their daughter "dreams of becoming a ballerina" and that they commend Park on her generosity.

“Currently, it is only myself teaching the classes,” Park says. “But I am planning to expand this program so that other volunteers can teach children ballet for free as well.” 

The inspiration for the classes came after Park, a Korean immigrant, noticed she was often one of the only dancers of color in her ballet competitions or masterclasses. "My parents told me that I had to do way better than other dancers to overcome the obstacles in ballet, just because of my ethnicity and how I looked," she says. "Often, I would see dancers of color getting lower scores, even though they seemed to have performed better, because of their body or the judges preferences." 

Park is not alone in her vision for more diversity in the dance genre, and says she’s inspired by groups such as American Ballet Theatre (ABT)’s Project Plié and Pacific Northwest Ballet’s DanceChance program, as well as social media projects such as the Tumblr page Black Ballerinas and Instagram posts by @Browngirlsdoballet. 

Across the U.S., 62% of professional dancers and choreographers identify as white, 11.7% are Black, 6.1% are Asian and under 5% are Hispanic. The racial barriers in classical ballet were particularly highlighted when trailblazer Misty Copeland, who has spoken publicly about a lack of role models in the genre, became the ABT’s first black female principal dancer in 2015.

“Essentially, the diversity problem in ballet is linked to economic inequality and the lack of role models for minority groups,” Park says. “I have definitely seen an increase in diversity in the Step Program since we have started. It makes me hopeful that this organization is being part of the solution.”
 
Despite COVID-19 shutdowns allowing Park the time to develop her initiative, it also posed significant challenges. The biggest hurdle, she admits, was adapting to a virtual setting. 

“When I initially started, I knew that I was going to be teaching via Zoom online but I don’t think I fully comprehended the fact that I won’t be able to interact with the kids as much as I would like to in an in person class,” Park says. “However, now we’ve tailored the lessons to be best taught virtually. We do various floor, barre, center exercises, and we also focus on musicality, strength, and flexibility. Even though we are not physically together in person, we still feel a sense of community and connection through the screen.” 

For Sterling Heights resident Sudhi Palanichamy, it’s Park’s biweekly podcasts that she can’t get enough of. Park has released 14 episodes so far, sharing student’s stories and interviews with professional ballet dancers of color about their experiences. The program's podcasts are available on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, RadioPublic, Breaker, Overcast and Stairway for Ballet’s website, with the goal to advocate for more diversity and change in the industry.  

“These podcasts mainly underscore the importance of eliminating racism, breaking stereotypes and increasing diversity in ballet, and what we as individuals and a society can do to contribute to it,” says Park.

“I think the program is wonderful,” says Palanichamy. “It can give a great impact by teaching young kids how to dance and explore their passions, and bring them happiness in these tough times.”
 
This year, Park is looking to boost the impact of her program, with fundraising events and plans to expand.

“This could involve inviting trained guest teachers, recruiting volunteers or even make it a bigger platform where volunteers and children can connect with each other across the country,” she says.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at kroff@issuemediagroup.com
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