In a 2014 ad for Under Armour, a young girl’s voice reads a rejection letter from a ballet academy as Misty Copeland dances. “Dear Candidate,” the girl reads, “thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately, you have not been accepted.” The camera pans up Copeland’s legs, revealing powerful calves. She has the muscle definition of a body builder, her gastrocnemius muscles huge and taught. “You have the wrong body for ballet,” the girl reads. Copeland pirouettes, feather-light, with the combination of smooth motion and coiled control that only the rarest of ballerinas can ever achieve.
The world of professional ballet is intentionally limited in the sorts of women it promotes: small, sylph-like figures are de rigeur. Breasts, hips, thighs, and buttocks are small, taught, and straight. Femininity is coded as petite, slender, and white. Unbearably white.
Misty Copeland is none of those things. She stands 5 foot 2. She is curved where other dancers are prebuscently flat. Her legs and arms are powerful columns of muscle. She is black. And to watch her dance is to see silk twist in water. She is feminine, she is beautiful, she is powerful.
In June, Copeland was named the American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer, making her the first African-American principal dancer in all 75 years of the ABT’s existence. This is an excellent leap forward (pun unintended) for diversity in ballet, and is the capstone on a career as remarkable and untraditional as the woman who has lived it.
While most ballerinas begin their path to professionalism before they have started grade school, Copeland did not begin to dance until she was 13. Born in Kansas and raised in California, Copeland was the fourth of six children born to an impoverished mother and an absent father. She enjoyed choreographing dances to Mariah Carey songs as a kid, but it wasn’t until she was invited to join a weekly free ballet class at her local Boys & Girls Club. Within three months she could dance en pointe. At age fourteen she won a national ballet award, and danced solo in Debbie Allen’s The Chocolate Nutcracker. At fifteen she won the Los Angeles Spotlight award and a scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet’s summer program. By 2007, Copeland was the third African-American soloist for the American Ballet Theatre, and the first in twenty years.
Blackness is almost entirely absent from international ballet theatres – good luck finding a dancer of colour in the Bolshoi or Paris Ballets. 2013 was the first year an indigenous Australian ballerina had the opportunity to dance in the Australian Ballet. Ballet, in the west, is overwhelmingly white. One doesn’t have to look far to find the ingrained racism inherent in the system: just look at the case of Precious Adams, an 18-year-old rising dancer invited to perform with the Bolshoi Ballet, who was repeatedly ejected from class and told by instructors to use lightening cream simply because her dark skin didn’t align with the arbitrary and restrictive standards of ballet bodies.
Ballerinas like Adams and Copeland are forced to deal with the racism and sexism ingrained in dance body politics, but their influence on diversity and visibility in ballet cannot be overstated. Copeland has been widely recognised for her ability to transcend out of the insular world of dance, and introduce ballet to new and diverse audiences. She has gained international fame and recognition of the sort most dancers never can. In an artform that privileges whiteness, slenderness, and smallness, Copeland offers a kind of visibility sorely lacking from the world of dance – and the audiences that attend her performances are significantly more diverse than the usual ballet crowd, as well.
Copeland has managed to surpass boundaries in ballet that for many other hopeful dancers are yet still too rigid to pass. But her advocacy, her visibility, and her raw talent make her an inspiration, and hopefully an ambassador, for a new, more inclusive dance world.