If you haven’t heard of ballerina Misty Copeland, you haven’t been paying attention. Ms. Copeland has been featured on ABC and NBC news programs, in niche magazines Dance and Pointe, Essence and Ebony, has toured with the artist Prince, and was recently award the Young, Gifted, and Black Award during the Black Girls Rock Award show.
Misty Copeland (Photos copyright 2011 Ballet Theatre Foundation)
Please click here to see her inspiring, eloquent, and elegant acceptance speech. That’s okay… I’ll wait for you. She’s really amazing.
As she mentions in the speech, Ms. Copeland was one of six children. Her single mom worked full time. She was discovered at age 13 on the basketball court of the Boys and Girls Club and began taking free dance lessons. If you’ve seen tiny girls in tutus, you probably know that 13 is considered a “late start” for someone interested in classical ballet training. That didn’t deter Ms. Copeland.
When she won the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award, it led to a position in the San Francisco Ballet’s summer intensive program. Next came the summer intensive at American Ballet Theater and then a place in the ABT’s corps de ballet. Promotions followed and in 2007, Ms. Copeland became the first African-American female in twenty years to solo for the American Ballet Theater. Most recently, Ms. Copeland was featured as the Firebird in Igor Stravinsky’s, The Firebird. She aspires to solo in classical ballets.
In a variety of interviews she talks about how she doesn’t fit the typical image that many people have of ballerinas. She says that it is difficult to be a person who stands out in an art form where you want to blend in and be part of a group (the corps). “[I’m] a curvy woman in this field. Being black and having started late.” One of the difficult pieces of the puzzle for Ms. Copeland was the lack of African-American mentors in the ballet world. “I went through times when I felt like didn’t belong. Not really because I was being told I didn’t. But I just didn’t feel like I looked like anyone around me.” (NBC interview)
Even though Ms. Copeland couldn’t find the people who looked like her in classical ballet or even in books, she did find mentors to help her along the way. She cites strong black women in general and specifically Raven Wilkinson who fought discrimination in the 1950’s to dance for Ballet Russe as one of the first black ballerinas.
Now, Ms. Copeland is a mentor to many other young ballerinas of color to whom she says, “Black girls can be ballerinas.” Ms. Copeland has two books in the works. One is a memoir, Life in Motion: An unlikely ballerina. The other is a book for children coming out in 2014 (G.P. Putnam Books for Young Readers) with illustrations from Christopher Myers. (If I can get one, I’ll review it for you here!)
Until then, I’ll remind you of a wonderful retro-read by Debbie Allen. Yes, if you are the same vintage (age) as I am, you remember Debbie Allen as the stick pounding dance master on the TV show Fame.
Her book Dancing in the Wings, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, pubbed in 2000 is still relevant today. I have an affinity for the main character Sassy who, like me, is tall with big feet. She is afraid that because her body type doesn’t match those of the other dancers, she will not be recognized for her talents. With some wise advice from her Uncle Redd, and a few missteps during an audition, she finds her path and a place in the summer dance festival in Washington, DC. The story is the classic ugly duckling turns swan but Sassy’s big personality (like her feet), the way she stands up to her brother’s nonsense, and the amazing illustrations by Kadir Nelson make this a great read.