Misty Copeland Breaks Down Colour Barriers
Written by Georgie Proud.
This Tuesday history was made – Misty Copleand became the first African American female principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Misty has gained a huge following over the past few years after becoming a soloist with the company in 2007. Last week she starred in Swan Lake and the crowd seeking her autograph at stage door was so large it had to be moved and this week ABT announced Misty’s promotion to principal dancer.
So why is this such a ground breaking moment? Well there is still very little diversity in the ballet world, especially in larger more conservative ballet companies like the ABT. There have only been a handful of African American principal dancers in major ballet companies across America and in its 75 year history ABT has only had one African American male principal dancer, Desmond Richardson who joined the company in 1997.
But why has it taken so long for ABT to promote a woman of colour to principal dancer? The answer to that has a lot to do with ideas about whiteness and femininity . Traditionally ballerinas have been slender, tall and white- a standard reproduced so many times it has become a beauty ideal in the world of ballet. Anyone who exists outside of this ideal is going to struggle to reach the higher echelons of conservative ballet companies like the ABT. This construction of white femininity is reinforced by traditional ballets such as Swan Lake, where the white and black costumes of the female lead are symbolic of good and evil. This is why a woman of colour performing the lead in Swan Lake is a huge step for diversity in ballet. It is, actually Misty’s second time performing the famous ballet this year after performing it with the Washington Ballet earlier this year. It was the first time a major American ballet company had cast two African Americans as the male and female leads. Pretty crazy that this hadn’t happened before 2015, right?
Misty’s journey to principal dancer has not been straight forward either. She began dancing when she was thirteen, far later than most dancers. At the time she was living in a motel with her single mother and five siblings, and began taking ballet classes at her local boys and girls club. She was a natural and began dancing “en pointe” (wearing toe shoes) after just three months, something that takes most dancers three years to accomplish. After years of work she was awarded scholarships to the San Francisco Ballet and ABT’s summer instensive before joining ABT in 2000.
Misty has been outspoken about the need for greater diversity in ballet throughout her career, in regard to both dancers and audiences. Her success has made ballet more accessible for dancers of colour and more diverse audiences alike, and she has developed a huge following.
I had moments of doubting myself, and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level. At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through, to carry the next generation. So it’s not me up here — and I’m constantly saying that — it’s everyone that came before me that got me to this position.
Misty sees herself as a role model foe little girls all over America, and by achieving her goals she has paved the way for countless other dancers who dream of a career in ballet but thought it would never be possible.
Georgie is one of the co-founders of Rosie. She is passionate about social justice issues and feminism. She lives in Melbourne with a dog called Murphy and a cat called Worms. Georgie loves music, travelling and getting crafty.
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