Film, TV & Stage

Meet US-born Eric Underwood, a soloist in London’s Royal Ballet since 2006, challenging perceptions of black men in ballet

EXAMPLE: Eric Underwood on stage

US-BORN dancer Eric Underwood has been with the Royal Ballet for nearly 10 years, after being spotted at the age of 21 while on tour with the American Ballet Theatre in London.

He has since danced the lead in Swan Lake, Sylvia and Manon, and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

The 32-year-old came to ballet as a teenager, which is relatively late for a professional, but has worked hard to reach the top of his field.

Eric was raised in a low-income family in a suburb of Washington DC, one of three children.

“My parents did the whole American, ‘We believe in you, you can do whatever you want to do thing,’” he told The Guardian.
His brother was into carpentry and his sister was academic.

Eric’s mum wanted him to be an actor, but after a failed audition, Eric stumbled into a class where girls were practicing ballet and knew instantly, it was something he could be good at.

LEADER IN HIS FIELD: Eric Underwood

“I felt like I could be great at this, and that I could change my family’s destiny if I got it right.”

He was given a trial run that same day, and was soon taking regular classes.

At 15, he won the Philip Morris foundation scholarship to the School of American Ballet and recalls his mother saying: ‘Oh, you must be quite good, then!’

He also remembers in New York, for the first time, people referring to him as “the black one”.

“My mother had always told me I was beautiful and amazing. I thought it was their problem. I never felt negative about being black. I’ve always thought, ‘I look great, I can dance, I’ve got some rhythm. Things are on the up and up! I’m just going to go home, put on some Marvin Gaye and have a blast!’”

He joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2000 and was promoted to soloist at the end of his first season; in 2003, he moved to American Ballet Theatre, where he and Misty Copeland were the only two dancers of colour in the company.

Eric, who joined the Royal Ballet in 2006, and in 2008 became a soloist and moved to London, believes that visibility is the best way to get more diversity in ballet.

“It’s about having ballet on your radar, and it’s important to see people who reflect you doing it. Ballet can be incredibly elitist and expensive. Unless you can afford those luxuries, you don’t see it as being a possibility,” he said.

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