A Safe Space: The Urgent Need For Diversity & Inclusivity In The Arts - A Case Study

There are saner ways to try and loose your mind than to start your own production company. I'll give you that. But most of them involve you sitting back, relaxing and watching the world pass you by.

I decided in the middle of last year that I was prepared to put myself at risk in order to be able to play it safe. And make no mistake about it The London Rep has come into existence for one reason and one reason only: the urgent need in this world for a safe space.

This need is not new. It is something that the female, the working class and the brown among us have been shouting at the top of our lungs about since long before hashtags were cool - as powerful as it is to now have them (thanks Tarana Burke). It is something that the LGBTQ community know a little about too. In the current climate more than ever, this need is urgent. 

But I'd hate for you to have to take the word of Adult Me alone, so here's Little Me's word on it...

Spoiler alert: the following is a snapshot of an average day in my 3 year old life. You'll want to ready a box of tissues and that blue gasping emoji.

black ballerina

When I was 3 years old, I attended a local ballet class. It was at a small space in my ends full of working class kids and I and my twin were not the only children of colour in attendance. We had been happily dancing for a few months - I say happily, my twin was a natural, I was really rubbish at it - when one day, we were asked to make a line facing the teacher at the front.

'Stand up straight.' she said inspecting the room with her eyes.

When she got to my sister in one of the front rows, she stopped and said

'No, not like that, straight.'

I along with all the other children in the class stood up deliberately straighter trying to impress.

'No she said, leaving the front and coming round. She put he her hand on my sister's back 'Tuck your bum in, tuck your bum in.'

I clinched my bottom as my sister did, trying to enact the teacher's direction.

'No' she said pressing harder 'Put it in. Put it in.'

My sister was visibly struggling. It was starting to become a moment in the class. 'This' she said swiping her hand from the nape of my sister's neck to the top of her thighs '...should be flat. No banana backs.'

I feel my back, the curve at the base of the trunk where my bottom started. It was definitely a banana back. Those weren't allowed. At least not in ballet. I began shifting around, trying to alter the geometry of it. When I had clenched so hard it hurt, I felt proud at what I had done.

‘This need is urgent. There’s no time to waste’

My sister meanwhile was still being prodded and pushed and poked in every direction. Each time her bum was pushed in so that the curve disappeared, her shoulder had to hunch and her stomach contract to accommodate the difference. At no point was any child friendly, specific, technical alignment teaching done. Just this quiet persistent prodding and poking. The other children in the class including me were beginning to become uncomfortable.

'Now stop being silly' the teacher cried exasperated.

My sister squeals 'It won't go!'

'You're being silly'

'I'm not, I'm trying! But it won't go!'

The teacher gave up in a huff and walked around the back of the class to resume her place at the front passing by me. I was quite relaxed. I had been squeezing my bum for so many minutes by this point it had gone numb. I was quite proud. No banana backs. Banana backs weren't allowed and I had gone to great lengths not to have one. To my complete surprise she stopped.

'No! No banana backs!!'

Who was she talking to? I thought. Not me. I didn't have a banana back. I was loosing circulation to my lower limbs in my attempt not to have one. Then I felt her hands on me.

'Come on, no banana backs.'

Her hands started pushing and shoving. I was trying to adjust but felt that in order to get the flatness she wanted, I too had to hunch my torso at the top.

'Good!' she exclaimed. Then saw what I was doing.

'No! Stand up straight. Long neck!'' I did as I was told.

'No banana backs! Come on stop messing about!' The pushing and shoving resumed. Other children were no longer facing the front but were turning around to take a look.

'Uh' she said exasperated 'If you're going to be silly there's no point. I haven't got time.'

She took up her place at the front and called out the names of several children in quick succession for praise of their wonderful straight backs. I had a tightness in my chest that I couldn't quite describe at 3 but more than two decades after the event perfectly remember. I had never knowingly felt it before but it has reared its ugly head many times over at every formative stage in my life. And continues to do so. The teaching plan had been constructed without any thought as to how to deliver technical direction about the spine, pelvis and tail bone to an ethnically diverse class of children. It was almost as if the idea a black body was equally capable of doing ballet but would require different specific direction than a white body might in order to achieve those same great results had not been taken into account. I had not been taken into account and neither had my sister or the other brown skinned kids. We were physically in the room but didn't seem to exist in the imagination of the person leading it.

Back at home after the class I remember being barely tall enough to come up to my grandma's knee whilst she was seated and in response to her enquiries after that day's lesson saying

'I've got a banana back.' Horrified she cried 'Nonsense who told you that?!'

'The ballet teacher. I have a banana back. I can't stand up properly but I tried and I can't make it go away.'

'Nonsense! It's racial.' she said.

'What does that mean?'

'You have a beautiful bum.' My grandma clarified.

But it was no use. I stopped shortly after. Sure it was partly because I hadn't taken to it much in the first place. But it was also largely down to a new found belief that I couldn't. It wasn't meant for me. I had a sort of deformity which made ballet impossible. Like having flat feet. It took more than 20 years before I stopped describing the curve at the base of my torso as a 'Banana Back' and about the same amount of time before I could watch any form of dance again without feeling nauseous.

‘...it wasn’t meant for me. I had a sort of deformity which made ballet impossible. Like having flat feet.

My sister, the one with all the promise, stopped at 8 whilst still a young overachiever, frequently placed in classes designed for children several years older than herself. The reason? Well there were two: firstly the specially branded kit was getting too expensive for my working class, single mother to afford, and secondly it was a truth universally acknowledged that professional ballet did not accept black people. All swans 'had to look the same after all' at least that was the inference based on the Swan Lakes that appeared on the telly each Christmas. Which meant to the adults around us, my sister was embarking on an expensive road to nowhere. Best to nip it in the bud, whilst she was still young and transition it into something else. Something where the world wouldn't create a conflict of interests between her race and her partly-innate-partly-hard-won levels of excellence.

And so it was done. There were tears. Many of them. None the less, she transferred her prodigious levels of musicality to classical music and excelled there. I joined her soon after. The hope being that if you were brown and good at Bach, the establishment could close their eyes and still enjoy it, where as with ballet that wasn't possible. 

We came to see very quickly, that here too, during televised performances of work at the highest level, the highest levels of melanin were strikingly absent. My sister never again had the sparkle in her eye that ballet gave her, never again had the spring in her step. Never again had the belief that talent was enough to overcome anything, even poverty and society's perception of blackness.

So why have I told you this? It's something that until recently I felt quite uncomfortable talking about with anybody - 'dwelling on the past doesn't help you build a future', I would tell myself. Except of course sometimes it does. Which in the smallest of nutshells is what has led me here. This has not been the only micro aggression either of us has suffered, just one of the first and most formative ones.

healing heart

I guess I want people to know that there is hope. You can make the world closer to the place you wish it was and less like the place it currently is. Whether or not you should have to as a proud member of the working classes and/or the highly melanated is a debate for another day.

Since we were toddlers there have been several chinks of light in the armour of exclusion's darkness. Francesca Hayward is now a principle at The Royal Ballet, Misty Copeland is another at American Ballet Theatre, Precious Adams is a soloist at English National Ballet and Michaela de Prince is at The Dutch National Ballet. And you have the wonderful classical bassist Chi-chi Nwanoko founder of Chinike Orchestra and The many talented Kanneh-Masons setting the classical stage alight.

There is of course so much more to be done. Whilst I've long since left ballet behind, upon graduating from drama school last year, being classically trained in music became an increasingly big part of my professional and personal life. This company exists because in my more recently adopted home's of theatre, film and television too there is much work to be done to ensure our stories better reflect us both as we are 'now' but also as we were 'then'. The truth is that as Brits and Europeans our history has always been a diverse one. Our job as artists is to hold a mirror up to nature and paint metaphors of whatever is reflected there; our job is not to ask anyone who is female, brown skinned, working class or queer whose eye our mirror happens to catch to step aside and remove themselves from the gaze of the glass.

As hard and as terrifying as it often is, taking action I have come to see, is the only way to really achieve anything. Especially something which many might deem to be 'outspoken' and 'audacious', something which flies in the face of the status quo. And so here I am, with The London Rep, this beautiful, newborn, baby thing, living day by day, (for better or worse) in the blind belief that if you so choose and I do choose - anything is possible.


by Leaphia Darko (@leaphiad), Founder & Artistic Director of The London Rep