The world knows Misty Copeland as the first African-American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre – her image splashed across billboards from coast to coast. But her purpose, Copeland says, is far greater than making history on stage or in print.
And, she insists, being a first in no way erases the ballet world’s race problem.
“The ballet world doesn’t really celebrate or have women of color,” she tells CNN’s Poppy Harlow in the latest podcast episode of “Boss Files.”
“There’s not a day that goes by that I feel like this is normal – or that this should’ve happened for me,” Copeland says as she recounts the unlikely path she took from living in a motel with her single mother and five siblings when she was just 13 years old to becoming one of, if not the, most famous dancers in the world.
“I still feel like I’m so grateful for the journey that I’ve been on and for the opportunities that I have now.”
With that opportunity, she is adamant that a large part of her purpose as a public figure is to make sure up-and-coming black and brown dancers know they belong in the world of classical ballet – and feel welcome there.
Before Copeland, only several African-Americans had danced in principal dance positions in a major ballet company in the United States. And all but one were men.
Lauren Anderson of the Houston Ballet became the first African-American principal ballerina in 1990. Desmond Richardson held the post with the American Ballet Theater during the 1997-98 season. At the New York City Ballet, Arthur Mitchell was featured as the principal dancer in 1962, and Albert Evans held the post 33 years later in 1995.
‘You don’t belong here’
Copeland hopes those who follow in her footsteps will not face the judgment she so often did. She recalls being told as a young dancer that she didn’t have the “right” body type to be a professional ballerina. Translation, she says, “It’s an acceptable way to say ‘you don’t belong in the ballet world’ without saying ‘you have the wrong skin color.’
“I have a body that a lot of white dancers have and there’s white ballerinas that are principal dancers that have larger chests than me and bigger muscles and broader shoulders and they are not told they don’t belong.”
Copeland laments the fact that this continues today.
“At 7 years old being a black girl in their school and they’re being told by their teachers ‘you don’t belong here, your skin is the wrong color, your feet are too flat … we can’t work with your hair.’”
‘I am a ballerina’
In 2015, Copeland catapulted to the highest ranks of the American Ballet Theatre as its principal ballerina and landed on the cover of Time magazine.
She joined ABT in 2001 and in 2007 became the company’s second African-American female soloist and the first in two decades. Although there was anticipation that she would eventually be named the company’s principal ballerina, her introduction to ballet started relatively late at age 13.
She stumbled on to the basketball court of her local Boys & Girls Club in California for her first ballet class, which would change her life.
Copeland can pinpoint the moment she realized she could rise to the top of the predominantly white world of classical ballet. She recalls watching a documentary and seeing the ballerina Raven Wilkinson for the first time.
“This black woman came on the screen and she started speaking and it was the first time that I felt like I recognized myself in another dancer and it was so powerful,” Copeland recalls.
Wilkinson was the first black woman to dance for a leading classical ballet company – signing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s.
“I think something that’s hard for a lot of um, black and brown dancers is that we don’t see or know our history within the classical ballet world, and there is a history,” Copeland says.
Knowing that history armed Copeland with the strength to strive for the top.
“When I became a professional, you know, that was when it was really eye opening. I was the only black dancer, black female dancer in American Ballet Theater for over a decade,” she recalls.
In her memoir, “Life in Motion,” Copeland repeats the refrain “this is for the little brown girls” – as if foreshadowing the larger role she would come to play in America’s race conversation.
“I slowly started to realize that my purpose was bigger than just being a dancer. And I felt like what I stood for and, and my voice and what I represented was more than me,” Copeland recounts. “It was an opportunity for these little brown girls and boys to be able to look at me and see themselves and see a future for themselves in a space where they’re not really celebrated. …This is for them, everything I’m going through, it’s to make it easier for them.”
Why representation matters
The way Copeland sees it, this discrimination only widens the opportunity gap.
“How many amazing artists have we missed out on, because they weren’t given support and an opportunity? So I feel like I want to be the voice of so many that didn’t have what I have,” she says.
Part of effecting change, Copeland says, is through programs like Project Plié, focused on expanding diversity and inclusion within the world of classical ballet.
Copeland mentors a number of young dancers – like Makita Ronnie, who approached Copeland when she was in her early teens and sought out her guidance.
“I’d go over to her house and have dinner with her family. It’s so important, I think, for people to see people like me, especially as a black woman setting a positive example – to see that I’m real, to see that I’m not this celebrity they only see on TV, but that they’re me,” Copeland says.
To this day, Copeland says, before each performance, Raven Wilkinson calls her and says, “May I be the wind at your back.”
Copeland says that when she mentors young African-American dancers she tells them, “It’s about how we approach it … it’s very easy to get emotional and to get angry.”
But she argues educating others on race can have a meaningful impact.
“I feel like a lot of people just are ignorant to other people’s experiences – and I feel like if we don’t come together with that common ground of not feeling like we’re attacking each other, that it’s easier to hear and to learn.”
Copeland – in many ways – now carries that torch on for countless black and brown girls and boys.
“I think that’s my purpose – to bring people in, to make them feel that they belong.”