19-year-old Precious Adams isn’t your typical ballerina at the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia. Adams’ ballet journey began the age of 9 with Sergey Rayevskiy at the Academy of Russian Classical Ballet in Wixom, Michigan, where she was introduced to the Russian technique. Adams went on to hone her skills at the American Ballet Theater in New York City, the National Ballet School (NBS) in Toronto, The Princess Grace Academy of Classical Dance in Monte Carlo, and finally at the Bolshoi Academy where she’s set to graduate this spring. Adams will become one of the first African-American ballerinas to finish the school, but it hasn’t come easy for her.
The Canton, Michigan native has had her fair share of challenges in the dance academy because of her dark skin. Adams has been left out of performances because she’s black and has also been on the receiving end of racist comments, like being told to “try and rub the black off”. Although the academy has several other dancers from the United States, some of which who are biracial, Adams said her dark skin has is what has prevented her from being cast in group pieces.
“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.”
She said that she tries not to let comments affect her — like one teacher’s sincere suggestion that she experiment with skin bleaching — and continues to work hard on her craft. She was also aware of the pervasive racism in Russia prior to applying to the Bolshoi Academy.
“I knew before I came, everyone said, ‘Be aware, you’re going to be one of the only black ones. There’s racial problems, be smart — don’t take stuff personally,'” she said.
The most visible evidence of racism in Russia is often at soccer matches, where Russian fans — whose ranks often overlap with nationalist groups — yell slurs at black players on opposing squads.
Adams said she has grown accustomed to the casual racism of Russian society. She does not go out alone at night, she has gotten used to the stares from passersby, and her headphones silence remarks from people on the metro.
But at the Bolshoi, which seems worlds away from rowdy soccer bleachers, issues of discrimination may be affecting how her potential develops into a career. Performance time, in her words, “directly relates to you getting a job. If I can say I’ve only performed on stage four times out of the past three years, it doesn’t look good.”
“If I’d gone anywhere else, I’d probably have a lot more experience,” she said.
Responding to Adams’ allegations of mistreatment, the Bolshoi Academy said in a statement that they had received no report of discrimination from her and that school officials had not heard complaints from other international students, who hail from ten countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia. The academy also noted that all students get to participate in onstage practice and that Adams had received high marks for her time on stage.
When Adams is questioned why she chose to study in Russia, knowing that the country has issues when it comes to race, she says she didn’t want to miss out on the experience.
“I am really just here to get the best training that I can so I can go and be amazing somewhere else, where it is not so racially discriminatory,” she said.