Unlike most girls who enter ballet and get their first pair of toe shoes before they’re even in elementary school, Misty Copeland was a late bloomer when it came to the art of ballet. At the age of 14, Copeland discovered dance at the local Boys and Girls Club, and never looked back.
Copeland is the only black soloist in the American Ballet Theater, but she’s not letting that deter her from scooping up endorsement deals left and right, as well as paving the way for other dancers.
“It’s weird for minorities,” she says, “even just to buy tickets to the ballet. We feel like it’s not a part of our lives and we’re not a part of that world.”
In a recent interview with NY Mag, Copeland discusses not only some of her victories, but also facing racing head on:
As a dancer in the ABT, did you encounter overt racism?
A lot of it wasn’t so black and white and in my face. But I knew it was happening around me, and I would hear from other people things that were being said about me. Things about how I didn’t fit in, how I didn’t have the right body type because I was “curvy.” Certain people, they’d come in and cast ballets and wouldn’t even give me the time of day or the chance to see if I was talented enough to portray certain roles. They think the corps de ballet should be uniform and that’s the thing. It’s a visual art form, so they’re judging me on my physical appearance, and some of them just don’t want to see brown skin on the stage. It could have stopped me many times, but I was extremely fortunate to have a teacher who saw past the color of my skin.
So are there black dancers whose careers are stymied before they even get out of the starting gate?
I hear stories from young dancers that I’ve mentored who have really head-on dealt with being told they can’t do this. That they should find another dancing path because ballet would be extremely difficult with brown skin. They are being told that to “protect” them from getting to that point where they are going to be rejected. It’s difficult to experience that at such a young age. It’s difficult to look around and think, Why am I here? I’m the only one! I don’t fit in.
Are you worried about being pigeonholed as “the black ballerina”?
That is definitely not a concern of mine at all. I am a black woman and my experiences would not be what they are if I wasn’t. I’m so happy to share those experiences, for other people to be able to learn from them. It doesn’t bother me that I’m identified in this way. I know that I’m talented, and I know that I’m not in American Ballet Theater because I’m black — I’m here because I’m a gifted dancer.