Misty Copeland (1982- ), an American classical ballet dancer, in 2015 became the first Black American woman ever to become a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). That makes her one of the top ballerinas at one of the top classical ballet companies in the world! Mikhail Baryshnikov was a principal at ABT.
In the US, ballet is mainly seen as a White thing. Accordingly, many assume that rail-thin White women make the best ballerinas. But, as Copeland herself has shown, that comes from prejudice, not from the demands of the art.
Copeland did not start ballet till age 13. Many professionals start at age three. Yet she could do in months what took most girls years of practice.
She loved ballet more than anything – but then her mother told her to quit. The family (her now-divorced mother and six children) had moved to a motel room at the Sunset Inn in Gardena (in metropolitan Los Angeles). Going to ballet class, now 13 miles away (21km), meant a long bus ride.
Her ballet teacher, seeing her rare talent, said Copeland could stay with her during the week, coming home at weekends. Her mother agreed. But over time, she saw her daughter less and less – there was always some excuse. So after two and a half years, she told her to move back home. The ballet teacher persuaded Copeland to say no and fight her mother in court!
In the end, her mother got her to come back home – and even to turn down an offer from ABT. She wanted her to finish high school, go to the prom, not lose touch with her family and all that: a future in ballet, after all, could easily be ended by one bad injury.
In 2001, after high school, Copeland joined ABT at last – but then injured her back. She could not dance for a year. Then puberty hit (at age 18). It gave her girl’s body the curves of a woman. Some said she had the wrong “body type” for a ballerina. But after some five years, she was as good as ever.
When she arrived at ABT, she was the only Black ballerina. They did not hire a second one till ten years later (also light-skinned). She felt lonely and like she did not belong. She felt a more natural connection to some of the Cuban and Russian dancers than to her fellow Americans. That was partly due to class: in Russia and Cuba, ballet is not the preserve of the rich.
In 2007, she became the first Black female soloist at ABT in 20 years. Soloist is the rank just below principal.
In 2012, she injured her left leg, but a year later she was back and better than ever.
In 2014, she became the first Black woman at ABT to star in “Swan Lake” – a dream come true.
As a Black ballerina she wants to broaden the appeal of ballet and be a role model to Black girls.
Thanks to Mary Burrell and others for suggesting this post.
– Abagond, 2015.
- Stella Abrera – became the first Filipino American ballerina to become a principal at ABT, also in 2015.
- Other Black Angelenas who rose to the top of their (very White) fields:
- Gabby Douglas
- Bessie Coleman
- The Blind Side