Misty Copeland is only the third black woman in history to be named a soloist in the American Ballet Theater (ABT) and the first in the last two decades. Though she is now one of the most recognizable names in ballet, her humble beginnings are what make her an empowering example for young girls everywhere. To think, she once considered giving up.
Copeland happened upon ballet in the most uncanny of ways. She was discovered at a local Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, California when she was 13 years old. In many respects, professional ballet – and dance in general – is reserved for white elites. Even buying tickets to the ballet limits the numbers of minorities in attendance. In her new memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina”, the now 29 year old discusses how racism in the industry could have ended her career. But, she was lucky enough to have mentors who saw past the color of her skin. Yet, for some, seeing Copeland’s brown skin on stage was antithetical to their understanding of what the ballet was supposed to be.
“They think the corps de ballet should be uniform and that’s the thing. It’s a visual art form, so they’re judging me on my physical appearance, and some of them just don’t want to see brown skin on the stage. It could have stopped me many times, but I was extremely fortunate to have a teacher who saw past the color of my skin.”
The book also talks of her personal struggles. At one point, she was living in a motel with her five brothers and sisters and their mother. She ended up becoming an independent minor. So, she definitely doesn’t have the pedigree of the average ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. And, in some cases, it wasn’t just her family life and skin tone that seemingly obstructed her way. She was also demeaned because of her “curvy” body type.
“Finally, the ABT staff called me in to tell me that I needed to lose weight, though those were not the words they used. Telling already thin women to slim down might have caused legal problems. Instead the more polite word, ubiquitous in ballet, was lengthening.
I was five foot two and just over a hundred pounds.
“We believe in you, Misty,” they’d say. “We want to push your talent, but your line is not as lean and classical as it was before. We’d like to see you get that back.”
“There were many people who seemed not to want to see black ballerinas, who thought that our very presence made ballet less authentic, less romantic, less true.
The bitter truth is I felt that I wasn’t being fully accepted because I was black, that leaders of the company just didn’t see me starring in more classical roles, despite my elegant line and flow.
I wanted to run away from the ABT.”
Copeland hopes that her memoir will help young black girls and other girls of color to follow their dreams even amidst hardship. She has been attacked for virtually every characteristic she has. Her race, age, body type, and upbringing have all been presented as issues she would have to overcome. But, she made the conscious choice to embrace her own humanity and stay true to herself even when it wasn’t the most popular option.
Young women of color too often have to face adversity because of societal barriers and opposition. Copeland’s success is just one bright ray of light for these young women who, themselves, have considered giving in to the obstacles impeding their way.
She truly is more than just a ballerina. She is a shining example of a black woman who has carved out her own space in an industry that tried to keep her out. She is an author, a mentor, and a leader. She is a true inspiration.