Black Ballerina Faces Discrimination at Russian Academy: ‘Try and Rub the Black Off’

ballerina 1A group of young ballerinas from the Moscow State Academy of Choreography, better known as the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, stand in a practice room and stretch, preparing to be inspected.

A female instructor helping to select dancers for the academy’s 240th-anniversary celebration, a show that will feature big-name stars as well as ballet students from the academy and around the world, enters the room. She looks the girls over from their hair buns to their slippered feet, staring to determine who is too heavy, too skinny, or has just the right look.

The instructor stops in front of one ballerina, Precious Adams, an 18-year-old American from Detroit. “What are you doing here?” the instructor asks curtly, then tells her to leave the audition room.

Though plenty slender, Adams does not have the same look as the other ballerinas at the Bolshoi Academy, a ballet school affiliated with the iconic Bolshoi Theater. Unlike almost all her classmates, she is Black, and in the spring she will become one of the first African-American ballerinas to finish at the school, despite facing persistent discrimination at an institution used to dancers of a paler complexion.

In her more than two years at the academy, Adams has been left out of performances because of the color of her skin, she says, and has been told to “try and rub the Black off” to make herself look more like what directors want for shows like the school’s 240th-anniversary performance earlier this month.

“Some of the teachers know in the back of their minds that it is unfair, because they know that I can do what these other people are doing just as good if not better than them,” Adams said in an interview. “Teachers have tried to vouch for me before, but if the almighty voice says it’s not right — it doesn’t look right — then whatever they say goes.”

Adams grew up far from the high-pressure world of the Bolshoi, in Canton, a middle-class town outside Detroit. But she began her rise toward the upper echelons of classical ballet early in life.

She began ballet lessons at age 5, and at 9 years old she joined a nearby studio led by Sergei Rayevsky, a graduate of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg. She then moved farther and farther away from home to develop her talent, studying in Toronto, New York City and Monaco, before applying to the Bolshoi after winning a scholarship to study Russian and ballet at the school’s stateside summer intensive program.

Her Russian studies were complemented by a rapid immersion in the language when she was accepted to the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow and moved into the school’s dormitories near Frunzenskaya metro station in 2011, when she was just 16.

The school has become increasingly open to foreign students, including about 20 Americans, who are helping to bankroll the academy’s renovations by paying yearly tuition of 680,000 rubles (about $21,000). Fittingly for a school that is becoming more international, with one-third of each 36-person class coming from abroad, technique classes are a smattering of French moves like pirouette and Russian commands like вперед! (Forward!).

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