A dancer who is committed to breaking down ballet’s racial barriers, the alluring, athletic, and audacious Misty Copeland became an award-winning ballerina after only two years of training and is the first African American soloist for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in twenty years.
In this way, Misty Copeland is comparable to the likes of Naomi Campbell and Jackie Robinson regarding what each has done for the industries of modeling and baseball, respectively. Coined the “unlikely ballerina,” Copeland has since garnered many awards and honors, including endorsement deals with BlackberryTM, Under Armour, and Diet Dr. Pepper in addition to numerous spreads in New York, Forbes, O, and Essence magazines. Most recently, Misty Copeland has performed in a Prince music video, launched ABT’s Project Plié, founded her own line of dancewear, and most notably, published her own memoir entitled LIFE IN MOTION: An Unlikely Ballerina.
Keeping her ultimate goal in mind, which is to reach the rank of principal with ABT, Misty is also committed to raising awareness about the need for diversity in the dance, and especially the ballet, world. In a recent interview, Misty was asked the question “if you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?” to which she responded, “to have American ballet look like the rainbow” (Williams). One way that Misty Copeland is raising awareness is through the development of ABT’s Project Plié, a national initiative that is aimed at boosting diversity within ballet. Misty, who was a recent recipient of the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Arts, as well as an inductee to the Boys and Girls Club Alumni Hall of Fame, plans to use this program to show children that they can rise above their backgrounds to pursue their dreams through dedication, determination, and discipline. By partnering with regional ballet companies and Boys and Girls Clubs, Project Plié plans to offer scholarships to young dancers of color in hopes of developing a stronger pipeline of performers from underrepresented groups. If this pipeline flows freely, the company also hopes that a broader and more diverse audience will enjoy classical ballet for perhaps the first time ever. As Frank Sanchez, the national vice president of Boys and Girls Club of America, exclaims, “the motivation behind Project Plié is that it can happen again. The theme of this is finding the next Misty Copeland” (Catton).
Misty Copeland uses her endorsements and commercial opportunities to spur interest and serve her greater purpose as well. One such opportunity, other than those listed previously, would be Misty’s spot on the PBS/AOL series “MAKERS: Women Who Make America” in addition to her featured role on Hulu’s web series, “A Day in the Life.” By making her story public, Misty is able to act as a role model for young colored students, which is one of the most important ways to inspire the growth of future dance generations. When asked why she is considered a “game changer,” Misty replied, “I know that my story is different from the typical ballet dancer’s story and I want many young African American girls to know that it’s okay to venture into this art form. I know the struggles in this industry and how important it is for young women to have someone out there that they can relate to, so I’m happy to be one of the voices of ballet right now” (Obie).
In a world that is continually plagued by body image, Misty Copeland is also stepping up to reform how young girls view their bodies, specifically regarding dance and the idea that ballerinas must be bone thin. Besides designing her own line of dancewear, which is created with young women in mind, Misty Copeland is redefining what it means to be a dancer and is helping the world to see that dancers are athletes too. As Leanne Fremar, Senior Vice President and Executive Chief Director of Under Armour recently remarked, “just as Under Armour is changing our consumer’s expectations around performance gear by infusing it with style and design, Misty is changing the world’s view of what it means to be a world-class ballerina. She brings a modern athleticism to a very traditional art form and pushes the boundaries of the status quo definition of the word ‘athlete’” (Wilson). As many of her fans know, there is no denying Misty’s grace, strength, and athleticism, as her ad campaign for Under Armour expertly shows. As far as Misty’s opinion is concerned, “joining the Under Armour family feels like a natural fit, since they have always championed hard work and strong women. Under Armour will be a great partner to help me inspire women as they find the will to pursue their goals” (Wilson).
Misty Copeland has continued to prove her validity in this art form and has inspired countless young dancers, not only because of her nontraditional path to becoming a ballerina, but also because of her passion, strong work ethic, and leading position as an outstanding role model. Not only has Misty become American Ballet Theatre’s first African American soloist in over twenty years, she has also overcome significant financial and personal obstacles in order to shift the way the world views ballet dancers, body image, and black women. If her path continues in such a marvelous way, she will reach the rank of principal, just as humble as she is now. But more than that, Misty will be remembered for having broken down barriers, whether they were racial, sexist, or otherwise, to make classical ballet a more diverse, relevant, and wonderful place. Like Virginia Johnson, Alicia Graf, and others who have come before her, Misty Copeland has and will continue to pave the way for minority performers and young women across the world.
Stay tuned for an announcement regarding Misty and Ballet in Cleveland in 2015. For more information, visit www.balletincleveland.org
To read more about Misty’s inspiring journey, visit http://www.abt.org/dancers/detail.asp?Dancer_ID=56
Written by Caty Lewis. Caty is a rising senior at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She had the privilege of dancing with Jessica Wallis, founder and director of Ballet in Cleveland, throughout her early dance career at Martell School of Dance in Akron, Ohio. At Hope, Caty studies Dance Education and Special Education with a focus in Emotional Impairments and is currently completing a summer internship at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.