She Inspires Me: Misty Copeland
In honor of Women’s History Month, “She Inspires Me” is a series celebrating women whose current contributions to social, political, and cultural life are making history in the present.
As a woman of color, the months of February and March hold a very special place in my heart because I get to celebrate phenomenal people in history who represent the two most important parts of my identity.
Many mothers of little girls dream of the day when their daughter is old enough to attend their first dance class, and mine was no different. I was 4 years old when I took my first ballet class and fell in love with the art form. I studied all forms of dance, participated in competitions and summer camps across the country, and spent most of my free time in the studio over the 11 years following my first class. I was able to meet and learn from some of the industry’s most prominent figures, and those memories will last me a lifetime.
But as I entered my teenage years, I noticed there was something missing. The incredible lack of diversity was all but impossible to miss at this advanced level. I remember always being able to count the number of people of color in my classes on one hand — if I wasn’t the only one. I remember thinking: where did all the black girls who were present in my very first dance class go?
This lack of representation was even more pronounced at the professional level. Lauren Anderson of the Houston Ballet became the first black principal dancer at a major company in 1990. And the most prestigious ballet company in the U.S., American Ballet Theater (ABT), never had a black principal ballerina until 2015.Misty Copeland changed that. In June 2015, Misty Copeland was (finally!!) promoted to Principal Dancer at ABT, making her the first African-American woman in the company’s 75 year history to do so. She represents the start of what I hope to be a new focus on diversity and inclusion for the ballet community.
Although Misty has reached the pinnacle of her career, her journey was far from linear. For years, she was passed over for promotions, forced to watch from the wings as her white counterparts advanced to the spotlight. Nevertheless, she persisted.
The ballet world has never been known for being diverse, but rather for its harsh criticism of skill, body type and even skin color. The topic of weight and body shaming continues to be a point of contention within the industry, leading many dancers to develop eating disorders while placing their physical and mental health at risk. The look of sameness that is desired in the ballet corps goes well beyond body type, extending to all physical attributes. These kinds of prejudices have discouraged many who might be interested, but do not fit into the stereotype, from ever giving it a try. That is why it is so important for young girls of color and all body types to see someone like Misty Copeland at the top of her game in peak #blackgirlmagic form.
As a former black girl ballerina, it is so inspiring to see Misty Copeland advance to the highest level at one of the world’s most renowned ballet companies. She is living out every little ballerina’s dream and, most importantly, making room for more of us at the top. Her resilience, grace and dedication to her craft are a testament not only to her strength as a dancer but also as a black woman. She did it for all of us.