Misty Copeland Becomes First Black Principal Ballerina at American Ballet Theater
Charlotte Alter @charlottealter 1:03 PM ET Updated: 1:49 PM ET
First black woman promoted to principal dancer in company’s 75-year history
The American Ballet Theater has promoted Misty Copeland to principal ballerina, making her the first black female principal ballerina in the company’s 75-year history.
Copeland, who has been with the company for 14 years and danced as a soloist for 8, is one of the most widely visible ballerinas dancing today, with fame spreading far beyond the ballet world. She has written two books (Firebird, a children’s book, and Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, a memoir,) presented at the Tony’s, made an ad for Under Armour that got over 8 million views, and was honored this year as one of the TIME 100. Last week, she became the first African-American ballerina to dance Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Under Armour released a statement congratulating Copeland on her promotion, calling her “a woman who is driven not by her detractors, but by her desire to be great.”
“Something that my mother instilled in me, as a biracial woman herself, and me being biracial, was that the world was going to view me as a black woman, no matter what I decided to do,” Copeland said at the TIME 100 gala in April. “I had no idea that that was going to be my truth at some point in my life, when I moved to New York City at 17 years old and joined American Ballet Theater and realized I was the only African American woman in a company of 80 dancers.”
Misty Copeland still MAKING PRINCIPAL, still MAKING WAVES.
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You have to watch the video.
“Misty, take a bow,” says Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, and the camera pans over to Misty Copeland, who is smiling and crying simultaneously as people clap and cheer around her.
The whole thing is maybe 15 seconds long. Just a moment. But what a moment.
Misty Copeland, the ballerina you’ve heard of even if you know negative nothing about ballet, made history this week as the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater. ABT is 75. Copeland is 32.
But like other astounding ascents of individuals from persistently overlooked communities — say, Becky Hammon becoming the first female full-time coach in the NBA just last year, or Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as the first African-American woman to be Attorney General of the U.S. just over two months ago — the celebration still invites a question: what took so long? Yes, it is remarkable that Copeland is making history. But it is also disheartening that this history hadn’t already been made.
Copeland joins a very, very short list of African-American dancers to earn this esteemed position. Arthur Mitchell became a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet in 1962, and Lauren Anderson did the same at Houston Ballet in 1990. In its entire history, New York City Ballet has only had two black principal dancers. ABT officials told the New York Times that the only black principal dancer they’d ever had on the roster, before Copeland, was Desmond Richardson, who got the position in 1997.
Diversity is better at smaller, regional ballet companies, said Sarah Kaufman, The Washington Post‘s dance critic. and even at not-so-small regional companies, like The Washington Ballet. One of TWB’s leading dancers, Brooklyn Mack, partnered with Copeland in her American Swan Lake debutearlier this year; at the time of the announcement, Kaufman wrote that Copeland and Mack would “effectively shatter the all-white stereotype of Swan Lake, the most traditional of ballets.”
But change is slower at behemoths like ABT, which “has so much at stake,” Kaufman said. “They have a very high profile, as ballet companies go, so what they do will have reverberations. And ballet is a classical art form. It’s very tradition-based. And a large company in a tradition-based art form is going to make any changes very, very slowly… It’s just harder to turn that ship around, because it’s so big and so entrenched in its history.”
On top of those external pressures, “There’s the Board of Directors factor, which, for a large company like ABT is going to be, potentially, of a certain income level and class, and is probably predominately white, as ballet audiences tend to be,” she said. “They may also be resistant to change.” The more traditional ballets are also significantly larger, cast-wise. A smaller company “is not necessarily going to see tackling Swan Lake as part of its mission,” said Kaufman, because “you need a giant corps de ballet. Same with Sleeping Beauty, same with Giselle.” Smaller, regional companies are more likely to dedicate their resources to contemporary works — fewer dancers, modern themes — that will, by their nature, be “more modern and more expressive of our times, not the 1800s.”
These factors, combined with the “ultra-ultra-competitive” nature of ABT admissions, “all converge into a climate that’s not going to consider what has ended up being a [huge] step forward lightly.”
Why have men of color been able to rise in the ballet ranks long before women of color could do the same? “The role of the ballerina is kind of a little more complicated,” said Kaufman. “It’s a kind of a construct as it’s come down to us: a centuries old notion of a delicate, kind of blushing femininity, on the one hand, and sensuality and power on the other, deployed in a very specific way.” The aforementioned classics rely, in part, on “this view of the ballerina [as a] fey, almost avian creature, that is very, very delicate and vulnerable and kind of melting.”
The writer & contributors of this article can opine all it wants on why it took Misty so long to make ‘Principal.’
Using adjectives such as ‘avian, delicate, vulnerable, etc. and it’s not complicated.
In this soundbite society, this would have been one of those moments when this would apply: Just say Misty wan’t a white ballerina.
She had to work twice as hard and long to get any notice of her GREATNESS, although she was GREAT to begin with.
Congratulations, Misty Copeland! This is a big fucking DEAL right here.
This post ABSOLUTELY ROCK!
I am so please that a ballerina of such amazing talent is now the principal dancer of the American Ballet Theater. Congratulations Ms. Copeland!
(Thanks Rikyrah for creating this wonderful page!)
20 Times Misty Copeland’s Instagram Rocked Your World
The ballerina has finally been promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre.
posted on Jun. 30, 2015, at 12:25 p.m.
Congratulations, Ms. Copeland. I so wish I could come see you perform and bring Peanut with me.