By Maddie Orton
She’s on The Met stage and TV commercials, So You Think You Can Dance and Sesame Street. Ballet dancer Misty Copeland’s appeal spans classical and pop culture. As only the third African-American soloist in American Ballet Theatre history, she’s breaking barriers, too.
Copeland spoke at Princeton University last week to a room full of fans.
“What’s the question that annoys you the most about being black in ballet?” asks Princeton University dance lecturer Tina Fehlandt. “It’s not a question,” answers Copeland, “but, ‘You don’t seem black to me.’ That’s a hard one to hear.”
For her first several years with American Ballet Theatre, Copeland was the only African-American female dancer in the company.
She and others in the field say that, in general, some companies tend toward a “uniform look” for their corps de ballet — the group of dancers who help provide background for the principals. She wants to see a shift in perception of what ballet dancers should look like.
“For me to have this platform, I think it’s important for me to stand for something and to challenge the ballet world to change and to grow because I think that’s how it’s going to stay relevant,” says Copeland.
She says part of that is getting to the root of the diversity problem, “Which is the ballet world and the way they think,” she explains. “And because it’s been this way for hundreds of years, it’s really difficult to change the way people view what a ballerina should look like.
That includes beliefs about body types, as well. “But it’s also getting the access to different communities. Getting affordable training to people where you’re going to reach a more diverse community,” says Copeland.
She knows the potential impact of community outreach first-hand. Copeland took her first class through a Boys and Girls Club at age 13 — a very late start by ballet standards.
“When I discovered ballet for the first time, it was like discovering a missing piece of myself,” she says. “I mean, I was fine with taking three ballet classes a day, which is what it took. I only trained for four years before I became a professional.”
For ballet students like 15-year-old Tierra Jones, who started studying two years ago, that’s what makes Misty so inspiring. And if her ad for Under Armour is any indication, Jones isn’t alone.
“It feels good actually,” says Jones. “Me as a dancer, I’m like, ‘Oh, she’s 13.’ She was the same age as I was. She’s my twin!”
Copeland’s popularity means she can reach lots of young dancers like Jones.
How does it feel to have these endorsement deals and be on Sesame Street? What is that like? “It’s surreal,” says Copeland. “And I feel like I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing classical ballet.” And judging by the line of people wrapped around the auditorium to meet Misty, she’s a great ambassador for the art form.