Misty Copeland recently made headlines when she became the first African-American female principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre company. For 75 years, the company had never had a woman of color within their highest ranks, but this has now changed. In today’s racially diverse world, this may seem like an absurdity: how could a New York City-based dance company go without people of color?
Unfortunately, this is the case in most major ballet companies throughout the world. This hyper-exclusive world has always catered to a wealthy European upper class, so this beautiful form of dance has retained certain racial and classist undertones – which is precisely why Misty Copeland matters.
Misty Copeland discovered ballet as a poor thirteen year-old living in a motel in Los Angeles with her family. There was a ballet class being held at her local Boys and Girls Club, and Misty was interested. When she went to take the class, the teacher noticed her grace, muscle, and innate talent. With the help of teachers financing her dance education, Misty quickly danced her way to national acclaim. However, she noticed certain things along the way…
Misty came from a poor family, while the other girls who danced at the San Francisco Ballet school came from wealthy ones. She was black, and they were white. They had been taking classes for years, being groomed for careers in ballet, but Misty Copeland discovered ballet almost by accident. To make matters worse, certain people she met throughout her burgeoning career said the same thing.
Though Misty Copeland is unarguably a trailblazer for people of color in the ballet community, there is a lot of work to be done. Ballets like La Bayadere and the Nutcracker portray other cultures in stereotypically negative lights. It is difficult to costume darker-skinned dancers, because most flesh-toned costumes aren’t made to match that skin tone. The ballet world is almost exclusively without people of color.
Misty Copeland has broken down hundreds of barriers on her way to the top, and has opened the conversation about dancers of color. There is much work to be done, but she has made a incredible difference to the dance community. Misty Copeland is truly a Smart Girl.