Why Zoe Saldana’s Big Center Stage Moment Feels Bittersweet, 20 Years Later

Photo: Columbia/Photofest.
Zoe Saldana may have been one of the only non-dancers in the main cast of Center Stage, but the sheer power of her performance made her its most unforgettable character. Only 22 years old when the film hit theaters in 2000, the actress made her feature film debut as talented but hard-nosed dancer Eva Rodriguez. 
Like her fellow new recruits to the fictional American Ballet Academy, Eva has her own set of headaches; she's got skills, but it's hard for her to climb the ranks because her natural gifts also come complete with a stank attitude. Ballet is about structure and order, and Eva has a hard time falling in line. 
Her classmates don’t know what to make of her, and her instructors are put off by her refusal to make herself smaller to fit in. In one striking scene, Eva loses her cool after instructor Juliette Simone (Donna Murphy) endlessly berates her friend Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) in front of the whole class. The outburst brands Eva the academy’s resident troublemaker, and the reputation follows her during her tenure at the school. She’s marked, and not in the good way. 
But Eva’s foul mouth and short temper aren’t the only reason she sticks out like a sore thumb at the academy. She’s also the only Black woman in her class. We know it, and she (probably) knows it, but no one ever discusses it. Without ever being explicitly mentioned, the fact of her race just hangs in the air. 
No one even remotely familiar with the ballet scene would be surprised to see the lack of diversity play out in Center Stage. Yes, there have been a number of exceptional Black women putting their own stamps on the style — the contributions of dancers like Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Virginia Johnson can't be ignored — but ballet has been excluding people of color for a very long time. 
When the art form originated during the Italian Renaissance and became popularized throughout the rest of Europe, almost all of its principal dancers were white. Global anti-blackness barred Black dancers from joining the ranks, with prejudice and unfounded scientific beliefs about the "disruptive nature" of the Black body underscoring the Eurocentric ideas of beauty and utility being enforced throughout the dance world.
Color truly didn't begin to trickle into western ballet until the 20th century. Raven Wilkinson was one of the first Black women to be accepted into a ballet company in 1950, but because of rampant racism, she and others had to literally paint themselves white to avoid stirring up controversy. To make matters worse, Black ballerinas almost alway were relegated to the background as their peers nabbed lead parts in Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.
Our sole Black ballerina in Center Stage experiences a similar hardship. After finding herself on the bad side of the academy’s director Johnathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher), Eva is plopped into the corps, destined to fade into the blur of faces while Maureen Cummings (Susan May Pratt) floats across the stage as the star of the show.
When Maureen suddenly decides to quit ballet hours ahead of her big performance, Eva deftly steps in to fill the gap, to the dismay of her instructors. Once onstage, however, our resident rebel shines. The combination of perfectly executed technique and flawless emotional expression makes Eva a shoe-in for a coveted spot in the American Ballet Company. Our resident rebel gets her happy ending. 
In reality, the upward mobility of Black ballerinas is a much rarer occurrence. Debra Austin's 1982 contract with the Pennsylvania Ballet made her the first Black ballerina to become a principal dancer at a major American company, and she paved the way for the likes of Aesha Ash (New York City Ballet) and Misty Copeland (American Ballet Theatre). Copeland famously became the first Black prima ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre's 75-year history in 2015, proof that the the gatekeepers of the industry are very slowly but surely filtering in more people of color.
Nonetheless, the industry still has many pitfalls that prevent minorities from pursuing successful careers in ballet. Ballet training is notoriously expensive, and many Black and brown communities have always had a harder time connecting to it because of the lack of local dance-related resources. Dancers of color are just now getting access to "nude" ballet tights and point shoes that actually match their skin tones. And some companies are still utilizing blackface and other racist tropes in their stage performances. 
Center Stage is about the harsh truths of ballet and what it takes to become a star in the strict world built around it. But its story, which disappointingly chooses not to flesh out the art form's demonstrable race problem, exists in an alternate reality. Eva does get the lead role in the final show, but it’s only the timely breakdown of the school’s prima ballerina that lands her the opportunity in the first place, not her obvious talents as a dancer. 
For countless Black ballerinas in the real world, no amount of quick-thinking finessing is enough to take center stage — they have to work twice as hard for only a fraction of the success because of the industry’s enduring prejudices. Twenty years later, Eva’s plight is a reminder of just how far the ballet world still has to go.

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