Stairway For Ballet founder SoEun Park stretches on the floor during her free virtual ballet program that she offers weekly to students ages 5-10.

Stairway For Ballet founder SoEun Park stretches on the floor during her free virtual ballet program that she offers weekly to students ages 5-10.

Photo provided by SoEun Park

Troy teen’s nonprofit promotes diversity, representation in ballet

By: Jonathan Shead | Troy Times | Published May 8, 2021

 Stairway For Ballet founder SoEun Park teaches free, virtual ballet classes to students watching from home on a computer or television screen.

Stairway For Ballet founder SoEun Park teaches free, virtual ballet classes to students watching from home on a computer or television screen.

Photo provided by SoEun Park


TROY — International Academy East junior SoEun Park’s nonprofit, Stairway For Ballet, began like many other entrepreneurial ventures do: from personal experience.

Feeling implications of racism and exclusionism herself, as a ballet dancer since age 6, she set out to create an organization to combat those issues and promote greater inclusion across the board.

“It’s been something I’m really passionate about, but despite my love for ballet, I think one thing has really bothered me, and that was kind of this implication of racism that you see in the ballet world at a lot of companies and competitions,” Park said. “(Ballet) has a diversity problem, and a majority of dancers in competitions or in companies are not dancers of color. In classes or master classes, I was often the one of a few dancers who was a dancer of color in America.”

Stairway For Ballet began in June 2020, but Park said the major components of the program, like the free virtual Step Program for students ages 5-10, really started in September. Since then, Park has been conducting the Step Program, a podcast series where she interviews professional and student dancers about their experiences, and it offers other resources, like petitions and informational videos to promote greater equality in ballet.

“It’s just about getting the real story out there about how (other dancers) feel about these issues, and what their experiences were as a dancer, not just even racism, but even sexism or how they feel about their bodies,” Park said. “We mainly discuss racism, but also (other) stereotypes in ballet. I think those interviews, if people listen to them, they will resonate with them and maybe they can learn something and become inspired.”

Park currently teaches roughly 40 young students free, virtual ballet lessons at her home every weekend. Park hopes to take her Step Program global and has already received some international interest from volunteer dancers in Greece and Canada.

Offering the program free to students was another conscious attempt to combat some of the economic inequities Park believes ballet perpetuates as well.

“Ballet is really expensive, so that’s why a lot of people can’t afford it. Some parents in my program right now have been saying, ‘Thank you so much. We couldn’t have done it without this program,’” she said. “I think that really signifies how much of an economic hardship ballet classes can be for families.”

Valentina Barsukova, the owner of Valentina’s School of Ballet, where Park has attended for the past six years, thinks issues of racism and diversity are even more prevalent around the globe than in American ballet.

“I do and I don’t,” Barsukova said, when asked if she thinks diversity could be better promoted in ballet.

The difference, Barsukova believes, comes from the separation between classical ballet and contemporary. She said many countries, like those in Europe where ballet was founded, still carry historical stereotypes for dancers, whereas American ballet can be more contemporary and less focused on how a dancer looks.

“It needs attention, yes, but I think everybody can have a chance.”

Barsukova said she hasn’t seen issues of diversity, representation or inclusion at too many companies or competitions in the states. It’s when you start looking at companies of a specific nationality where you might see some divergences from inclusion.

“I think now people bring (diversity) up a lot, but for me really I don’t think about it that much. I just teach whoever comes in, and I enjoy having different people.”

In America, it’s different, and it has to be. “In America, we need to accept whoever if she has talent,” Barsukova said. Greater equality in ballet is about changing the way America looks at classical ballet, she added.

“Especially in this country, we need to look at classical ballet differently, and I think everyone is ready. Classical ballet came from Europe. America was behind in it. America does very well with contemporary and musical ballet; we just need to look at classical and change it to fit this country,” Barsukova said.

But in America, Park’s experiences as a dancer haven’t always been that way, though she acknowledges action around diversity and inclusion in ballet are getting better.

“I think now I’m seeing even more diversity. It’s becoming a little bit better. … I know a lot of companies have decided to employ more dancers and choreographers of color. I think that’s the first step in making ballet more inclusive, representative and safe,” Park said, adding that greater advocacy and voice would be another step in the right direction.

A lot has changed in the world of ballet in the past 20 years, Barsukova added.

“One girl asked me two weeks ago before a competition, ‘Ms. V, can I not wear pink tights? Can I just have my skin color and tan shoes?’ I said, ‘Absolutely,’ yet 20-25 years ago there weren’t even that many different dancers. Everything changed.”

Barsukova’s support for Park’s mission will continue at her own studio, she said. “I always tell kids, you can be whatever. Good dancers are not how tall you are, how skinny you are, (or) what color you are,” she said. “Ballet directors and artistic directors need to start to be more flexible and see them like a dancer, and not just like a model.”

At the very least, Park hopes her nonprofit can open a pathway for students to try ballet and express themselves through another form of movement.

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