In Misty Copeland’s autobiography, ‘Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,’ she writes, “I remember the first time I stood on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House…I traced the marley floor with my pointe shoes and imagined myself…as a principal dancer. It felt right. It felt like a promise: someday, somehow, it was going to happen for me.”
For Copeland, that day has come.
This week, the American Ballet Theater (ABT) soloist was named principal dancer. She is the first African American female ballet dancer in ABT’s 75-year history to hold the title.
“As an African American female, former dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, dance teacher and educator, I could not be more proud to see someone of her stature arrive at such a wonderful place. She is as genuine and authentic as a dancer as she is a human being. What you see as an artist is what you get; she exudes beauty, grace, charm and talent beyond belief,” Sharron Miller, founder/director of Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts, told TNJ.com.
The 32-year old prima ballerina’s rise is historic. The classical ballet world has been under fire for decades for its exclusion of Black dancers. To be specific, there’s the tall, graceful, gazelle-like Alicia Graf, who was denied a spot at both ABT and New York City Ballet – a move that left the NYC ballet world reeling. She is currently an Alvin Ailey dancer.
Then there’s Raven Wilkinson whose ballet career was consistently affected by racism from having to wear white makeup onstage when performing with Ballet Russe to being barred from staying in the same hotel as her fellow dancers when touring in the South. And there are countless other trained dancers who were not invited to take their rightful places among the nation’s top classical ballet companies.
Copeland defied the odds. “ABT had always been my dream company,” she writes in her book.
In an attempt to quell some of the criticism and help “diversify America’s ballet companies,” in 2013, ABT launched Project Plie. In an interview that year with Rachel Moore, CEO of ABT, Moore told TNJ.com, “There are approximately five million kids around the country taking ballet class. The vast majority of them are white, so the numbers of minority kids who are going to rise up through the ranks to be competitive is very, very small. So if you start out with a small number, you’re going to end up with an even smaller number. The training ladder is very limited for students of color.”
Project Plie has since been providing scholarships for talented ballet students of color. Copeland, whose ballet training began at the Boys & Girls Club of America and the San Pedro Dance Center, is a member of its advisory committee.
In April, in a packed auditorium of mostly high school girls in Montclair, NJ, Copeland signed copies of ‘Life in Motion’ and ‘Firebird’ and told her adoring fans about her experiences in the classical ballet world. She counts her opportunity to learn the part of Firebird, after just recovering from an injury, as one of her most cherished times. “It’s not often that a 29-year old gets to do a leading role. I said to myself that this was my chance to carry the company. I dove into it with everything,” she shared.
She explained that performing the lead part in Firebird “was for the little brown girls. They were my inspiration. I had to create a path for them. I had to keep going [in spite of the injury].”
Her advice to African American dancers? “Be passionate and 100 percent in love with ballet. 90 percent of your time is spent training. You’re giving all of yourself and you’re getting criticized,” she says.
The criticism, as many know, comes in the form of body type comparison. Typically, the standard ballerina physique has always been rail thin – and well, Caucasian. But Copeland says that notion is changing. “The perfect ballet body idea has evolved. Even looking around ABT, girls have athletic bodies now. But for Blacks, it is opening up the conversation. Saying ‘you don’t have the right body type’ is the same as saying ‘you don’t have the right color.’ They hide behind that,” she notes.
She later told TNJ.com that Black girls who want to enter the classical ballet arena should, “find a support system…people who can be there for them when they have doubts.”
Copeland, who was born in Missouri and raised by a single mother in California, counts Wilkinson as a member of her support circle. In her book, she writes that Wilkinson, among others, “helped me to embrace my more womanly, physical self, and to remind me how wonderful my ethnic heritage was even if some couldn’t see it.” At the book-signing event, she added, “Raven has been like a grandmother to me. My children’s book, ‘Firebird,’ is loosely based on our relationship.”
In addition to her role at ABT, Copeland has had endorsements with Dr. Pepper and T. Mobile’s Blackberry, and last year, she signed on with Under Armour to be one of its sponsored athletes. She has since been featured in its ad campaign targeting women athletes.