Why Misty Copeland? How The Star Broke A Ballet Color Barrier

CREDIT: CHARLES SYKES/INVISION/AP
CREDIT: CHARLES SYKES/INVISION/AP

You have to watch the video.

“Misty, take a bow,” says Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, and the camera pans over to Misty Copeland, who is smiling and crying simultaneously as people clap and cheer around her.

The whole thing is maybe 15 seconds long. Just a moment. But what a moment.

Misty Copeland, the ballerina you’ve heard of even if you know negative nothing about ballet, made history this week as the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater. ABT is 75. Copeland is 32.

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But like other astounding ascents of individuals from persistently overlooked communities — say, Becky Hammon becoming the first female full-time coach in the NBA just last year, or Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as the first African-American woman to be Attorney General of the U.S. just over two months ago — the celebration still invites a question: what took so long? Yes, it is remarkable that Copeland is making history. But it is also disheartening that this history hadn’t already been made.

Copeland joins a very, very short list of African-American dancers to earn this esteemed position. Arthur Mitchell became a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet in 1962, and Lauren Anderson did the same at Houston Ballet in 1990. In its entire history, New York City Ballet has only had two black principal dancers. ABT officials told the New York Times that the only black principal dancer they’d ever had on the roster, before Copeland, was Desmond Richardson, who got the position in 1997.

You can’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry, there were other ballerinas who are better than you who we’re going to hire.” It’s very difficult to say that when you have Misty Copeland in the room.

Diversity is better at smaller, regional ballet companies, said Sarah Kaufman, The Washington Post’s dance critic. and even at not-so-small regional companies, like The Washington Ballet. One of TWB’s leading dancers, Brooklyn Mack, partnered with Copeland in her American Swan Lake debut earlier this year; at the time of the announcement, Kaufman wrote that Copeland and Mack would “effectively shatter the all-white stereotype of Swan Lake, the most traditional of ballets.”

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But change is slower at behemoths like ABT, which “has so much at stake,” Kaufman said. “They have a very high profile, as ballet companies go, so what they do will have reverberations. And ballet is a classical art form. It’s very tradition-based. And a large company in a tradition-based art form is going to make any changes very, very slowly… It’s just harder to turn that ship around, because it’s so big and so entrenched in its history.”

On top of those external pressures, “There’s the Board of Directors factor, which, for a large company like ABT is going to be, potentially, of a certain income level and class, and is probably predominately white, as ballet audiences tend to be,” she said. “They may also be resistant to change.” The more traditional ballets are also significantly larger, cast-wise. A smaller company “is not necessarily going to see tackling Swan Lake as part of its mission,” said Kaufman, because “you need a giant corps de ballet. Same with Sleeping Beauty, same with Giselle.” Smaller, regional companies are more likely to dedicate their resources to contemporary works — fewer dancers, modern themes — that will, by their nature, be “more modern and more expressive of our times, not the 1800s.”

These factors, combined with the “ultra-ultra-competitive” nature of ABT admissions, “all converge into a climate that’s not going to consider what has ended up being a [huge] step forward lightly.”

Why have men of color been able to rise in the ballet ranks long before women of color could do the same? “The role of the ballerina is kind of a little more complicated,” said Kaufman. “It’s a kind of a construct as it’s come down to us: a centuries old notion of a delicate, kind of blushing femininity, on the one hand, and sensuality and power on the other, deployed in a very specific way.” The aforementioned classics rely, in part, on “this view of the ballerina [as a] fey, almost avian creature, that is very, very delicate and vulnerable and kind of melting.”

There should be room for all facets of femininity in any art form.

A large ballet company is doing the Swan LakeGiselleSleeping Beauty trifecta as a general rule, performances that envision a ballerina as “someone tiny and slender and not curvy. A wispy physique, and white. That’s been the mold.” Copeland, for obvious reasons, does not align with this model, though “she does have a kind of old-fashioned quality to her,” said Kaufman.

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As Susan Fales-Hill, a writer who served on ABT’s board, told The New Yorker in a 2014 profile of Copeland, “Most ballet companies look like an Alabama country club in 1952.” In that same story, Anderson described the cultural fantasy of a ballerina as someone “pink and pale and fluffy,” saying, “We’re not accustomed to thinking of black women’s bodies in that context. We’re accustomed to thinking of black women as athletic and strong. But all ballerinas are athletic, all ballerinas are strong.”

Yet for all the talk about how Copeland’s casting is a deviation from tradition, it is her body type that, you could argue, is really the traditional one. “Her curves, her womanliness, are actually what ballet was like from its beginnings up until about 1954,” Kaufman said. “When you see the old lithographs of ballerinas, they’ve all got waists and cleavage. They have this beautiful softness about them that Misty has. She could kind of bring that back, which I think would be really wonderful. There should be room for all facets of femininity in any art form, especially that: a kind of more warm and soft physique is just another aspect of the beauty that ballet aspires to.”

The idea of “classical beauty” in a ballerina — in any woman — should be examined more closely, though: is it just a coded way of saying someone should look whiter? Or do artistic directors, in an effort to maintain what they consider to be the tradition of the art form, return to the aesthetics they know and, as a consequence, exclude dancers of color, whether or not that specific malice is intended?

“I do think it is a lot about that,” said Kaufman. “When an artistic director and his or her assistants — mostly his — are looking at hundreds of dancers in an audition… When you when you look at the preponderance of dancers and hear about those who have auditioned and not gotten jobs, those who have been in auditions and seen many talented African-American artists, you have to come away with saying: I think race has played a part here.”

“It’s not like it’s not being discussed in the ballet world, or that it hasn’t been discussed up to this point,” she added, citing panels and conferences she’s attended where discussions are dedicated to race and representation in dance. “Artistic directors know it’s an issue. But when it comes down to really pulling the trigger and hiring someone… looking at the result, you’d have to say, there is a race factor.”

Class, inextricably linked though not synonymous with race in this country, contributes to the problem. Ballet classes, summer training programs, the increasingly popular practice of hiring a coach for competitions: it all adds up. That said, “You can walk into ballet classes for kids in the suburbs here in Maryland, in the District, and you’ll see plenty of African-American students. When they get all the way through that training, are they going to be hired?”

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So what happened in the case of Copeland? Stars aligned — or, perhaps more accurately, some stars aligned of their own volition, and Copeland grabbed some other stars in her hands and pushed them where she wanted them to be. “She’s made this a big ambition of hers,” Kaufman said, by being vocal in a way that the public usually doesn’t associate with ballerinas: she’s written a book (subtitle: “My Story of Adversity and Grace”) and been featured on 60 Minutes, landed a spot on the TIME 100, presented at the Tony Awards. Her ad campaign for Under Armour, “I Will What I Want,” has been viewed on YouTube over 8.6 million times. Copeland commands of her own PR: she has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, hundreds of thousands on Instagram. She has made herself “impossible to ignore,” a dance celebrity on a scale Kaufman says we haven’t seen since Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Her celebrity “has been unsettling, probably, for some dance fans who are used to ballerinas keeping their mouths shut,” said Kaufman. But “I think it’s fabulous, because the whole country knows her name. They know the name of a ballerina, they know her face, what company she’s with. How can that be anything but good?”

Copeland’s run for principal is, to the layman’s eye, not dissimilar for a run for office. She has a compelling narrative — the 13-year-old prodigy discovered at a Boys and Girls Club, her well-documented ability to rise above well-chronicled financial struggles and potentially career-ending injuries as she rises onstage en pointe — that makes you want to root for her, even if you don’t know much (or even care much) about the upper echelons of the ballet world. “She became, really, a force to be reckoned with.”

Maybe the best analogy for Copeland is what Mia Hamm was to soccer in 1999: the face that transcends the sport, a shorthand for progress in a field (or on a stage) where progress has been a long time coming. “She’s combined outspokenness, ambition, the kind of high-level, elite talent that you need, and she’s so appealing as well: she looks good on camera, she’s well-spoken, she has a humble quality when she talks. She’s not over the top.”

And then there is her ability, which can best be described as undeniable. “She can’t be pushed aside,” said Kaufman. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, there were other ballerinas who are better than you who we’re going to hire.’ It’s very difficult to say that when you have Misty Copeland in the room.”

But going forward, Kaufman said, “I would hope that ballet now, the artistic directors of the major companies here and around the world — it’s not only in American companies that there’s a relative lack of diversity — I hope they don’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re going to wait for another Misty Copeland to come in the door,’ [because] she’s a bit of a special case. I hope they will take more of a look at the African-American dancers that are there for an audition, and find talent and develop it, and not just wait for a phenom.”

“The heartbreaking thing for me is to think about other African-American ballerinas that I’ve known in the past who could have stood in her shoes today, but for not having such a platform to make to make themselves noteworthy,” she said. “So I congratulate Misty. I hope that this step is going to mean a greater openness at ABT and at other large ballet companies. But that’s all you can do, is hope.”