Sydnee Carroll, a rising junior at Howard University, has been taking ballet classes since she was 3 years old. As a child, Carroll could not picture a ballerina who looked like she did.
“Little girls say ‘I want to be a ballerina when I grow up,’ ” Carroll said. “I never thought of an African-American dancer — I thought of a white dancer in a tutu and pointe shoes. If you Google ‘ballet dancer,’ that’s what comes up.”
She hopes to change that image for future children. Carroll is majoring in dance at Howard and plans to become a professional ballet dancer. One day, she hopes to open her own dance studio.
But her path here wasn’t easy. Carroll, who was one of six siblings, said her family struggled to pay for her ballet training when she was growing up. Although she started dancing early on, the classes were expensive, and by high school — when most girls hoping to pursue careers in dance get even more serious about their training — Carroll had to stop taking classes altogether. She practiced on her own, though, and taught herself to dance en pointe so that she could audition for collegiate dance programs.
Ballet has a long history of discrimination and is well-known for its emphasis on uniformity and the still lingering ideas of what ballerinas are supposed to look like. But, as Carroll can attest, another aspect of ballet that can serve as a major barrier to participation is the cost of training.
Unlike most other forms of dance, ballet requires specific studios, shoes, apparel and technical skills that are difficult to come by without paying for formal and frequent training. Although most schools offer a limited number of scholarships, these rarely cover all the costs associated with training and don’t always take into account a student’s financial need. Those in the profession say the high costs associated with ballet can be an obstacle for many students, especially for dancers of color.
Earlier this summer, Misty Copeland made history when she became the first black woman to be named a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. Her promotion not only highlighted the homogeneity of the professional dance world, but also sparked a renewed interest in addressing the issues of diversity and accessibility in ballet.
Copeland, who came from a low-income family, has talked about her struggle to feel comfortable in the ballet world — both because of her race and because of her family’s financial circumstances. In her book “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” she recalls noticing the difference between her own situation and that of her peers, many of whom had vacation homes and spent their summers in Europe. “I came from a San Pedro, California, family that didn’t always have enough food to eat, let alone money to spend on a hobby, and it wasn’t until I was 13 years old that I could even take my first ballet class,” Copeland wrote.
While Copeland was introduced to ballet as a teenager, most professional ballet dancers start to dance shortly after they learn to walk. Starting this young can mean students go through as many as 15 years of ballet training before they audition for paying roles at professional companies.
To understand what it takes to become a professional ballerina, I wanted to find out how much the required ballet training really costs. There are many factors that go into the cost of training, and when I totaled the core expenses, I found that a pre-professional ballet education for girls can easily amount to a total of more than a hundred thousand dollars.1 For families struggling to make ends meet, or even for those who simply don’t have a lot of disposable income, ballet may be an activity that’s out of reach.
During my search, I got information from current dancers, ballet school administrators and a dance history professor, as well as Dance/USA, an organization that provides data, programming and advocacy for the field of professional dance. I then calculated costs2 for five categories of spending necessary for ballet training: class tuition, additional fees charged by ballet schools, tuition and housing for summer programs, pointe shoes, and other ballet attire.
For my analysis, I considered a student who begins dancing at age 3. If she dances all the way through high school and is accepted into a professional company immediately after graduating — no easy feat — she will have undergone 15 years of ballet education. (If the student is not ready to join a professional company right away, many academies offer post-high school trainee programs that cost even more money.)
Tuition for regular ballet classes is the greatest overall expense. At the top tier of ballet schools — where students who hope to become professional dancers typically seek to train — those core 15 years of training cost a median of about $53,000. (The top tier of ballet schools is made up of those associated with professional companies that have budgets of more than $10 million.3) The cost of less prestigious schools is typically lower, but smaller local schools still have a median price tag of about $30,000.
Below is a breakdown of the costs of training that our sample child’s family would face as she strives for a career in ballet:
About $53,000 in tuition at a top-tier ballet school (over 15 years)
This assumes our sample child takes ballet classes at a top-tier school throughout her training.
About $2,000 in ballet-school fees (total over 15 years)
Additional fees include the costs of registration forms, class-placement auditions, performances and costumes. These can range from $15 to hundreds of dollars per year if students are required to purchase their own tutus for performances or otherwise help with school costs.
More than $32,000 on top-tier summer intensives (over six summers)
This assumes our sample dancer begins attending serious summer intensive programs the summer after sixth grade, when she would likely first be eligible for them. Most top-tier summer intensives are four to six weeks long and have a median tuition of about $2,500 per summer, plus nearly $3,000 for housing.
At least $29,000 on pointe shoes (over seven years)
This assumes the student starts wearing pointe shoes in sixth grade — around the time that most ballet schools allow students to try them out — and buys shoes priced at about $80 per pair.4 My estimate assumes that a sixth-grader goes through a pair of shoes every three months. By seventh grade, she needs a new pair of pointe shoes after one month; by ninth grade that need increases to one each week; and by the time she is in 10th grade, I’ve accounted for her buying two pairs per week. That might sound like a lot of shoes, but dancers have assured me that these high numbers are about right.
More than $2,000 on tights and leotards (over 15 years)
This assumes that simple leotards cost $20, that tights cost $10, and that our student bought two leotards and 10 pairs of tights each year of her training. These costs could easily increase if a dancer grows or often rips her tights.
Total: nearly $120,000 (over 15 years)
And that total is conservative — I didn’t account for transportation costs or optional dance classes that students often take in combination with ballet, for example. Still, as our student grows older, the costs of her training would add up to more than four years of college at many state universities.
Despite these high costs, many in the ballet community see reason to be optimistic about the diversity of professional ballet in the future. Some companies are taking steps to make serious ballet training more accessible to children from lower-income families. In recent years, programs that reach out to and support underserved students have exploded in number. Many of these programs seek to alleviate the cost barriers that students who are starting out in ballet can face, in the hopes that this will allow children from low-income families and students of color to see ballet as a career possibility.
Project Plié, which American Ballet Theatre started in 2013, provides scholarships for dancers of color to attend the company’s school, works with Boys and Girls Clubs of America to introduce students to ballet, and provides resources and training to ballet teachers of color.
Thirteen other companies have since partnered with Project Plié and expanded their own outreach programs. Traditionally, the term “outreach” has meant short performances in public schools or one-time classes offered at local community centers. But companies now say they understand the need to support underserved students for the long term, in addition to simply exposing them to dance.
The Washington School of Ballet, a Project Plié partner, is trying to encourage participation from students in its own community. Its main campus is in Northwest Washington, D.C., where the city’s central business district and many famous museums are located, but it has a second campus in Southeast Washington, which is home to less affluent neighborhoods and a large black population. The Southeast campus is located at a community center, and tuition there is priced on a sliding scale based on income and the number of people in each student’s home.
“We’ve built a home and a client base, a sense of community here,” said Katrina Toews, the program’s director.
Toews added that because of ballet’s high financial and time costs, parents also need to feel committed to their child’s dance education. The Washington School of Ballet has an active parent association that invites parents to volunteer and help fundraise for the school in an effort to ensure that both students and parents are invested in the experience.
Other schools have taken on the issue of diversity in ballet by focusing entirely on students of color. Dance Theatre of Harlem is one of the best-known of these schools. There, School Administrator Kenya Rodriguez said, everyone “feels like a family,” and the school works with students to help them afford all aspects of training — whether that’s tuition or an extra pair of shoes.
Rodriguez said colleagues at other schools often ask how they can diversify their programs. “You have to practice diversity,” she said. “It’s not something we suddenly embark on and it’s a one- or two-year project. In particular you have to diversify your faculty. If a child sees themselves reflected in the studio, they’re going to be more comfortable, and they’re probably going to continue their training more.”
That was certainly true for Sydnee Carroll. In her early years of training, she often attended schools where she was one of the only black students. But she said, at Howard, a historically black university, she feels more confident in her dance classes and gets more attention from her instructors.
“Ballet training is notoriously expensive; it’s hard,” Carroll said. “There’s a lack of role models. Misty Copeland is not the only one, but [other dancers] don’t have as much exposure. Once you’re given a role model and someone to look up to, it gives you hope.”