Misty Copeland Says This is the First Time She Feels Truly Heard as a Black Ballerina
As a Black ballerina in a predominantly white industry, Misty Copeland has been talking about race for a long time. She's told stories about being asked to lighten her skin for ballet roles, called out a Russian theater for putting dancers in blackface, and spoken out about some of the many ways the art form positions white skin as the default (including pointe shoes formerly being available in only one shade titled "European Pink"). Yet although the 38-year-old has been taking on this huge responsibility for the past two decades, she says that something has changed in the past year.
"In my 20-year career, as a professional, in being outspoken and really lending my voice to all of these issues, this is truly the first time that I feel like people are hearing me," Copeland tells HelloGiggles over the phone.
The dancer credits this shift to the incredible momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd last May. Since then, the movement has helped push for a public acknowledgment and investigation of institutional racism across various industries, ballet not excluded. In the past year, for instance, six major dancewear brands have announced plans to release pointe shoes in a diverse shade range, after hundreds of years of producing only white options. The majority of those announcements came after a two-year-old Change.org petition—which demanded a major pointe shoes supplier, Bloch, include options for dancers of color—went viral during the height of the 2020 BLM protests.
"I think it's just a wake-up call to the people to really understand the inequality for Black and Brown people," Copeland says. "I've been having these conversations publicly about my experiences as a Black woman in ballet and people are literally just hearing things differently."
"And that's all I can ask for," she continues. "You can't dwell on the fact that it's taken so long, but that it's happening."
While there's little data about the racial breakdown of professional ballerinas, 2016 research from Data USA shows that the diversity problem can be seen in the context of college education. While 69.2% of college degrees awarded in ballet were given to white dancers, only 2.6% were given to Black dancers.
It's only recently that more people finally seem ready to talk about these gaps; during the past year, Copeland says she's started getting calls from artistic directors all over the world who ask her about her experiences and what can be done to improve them. "To me, that's a huge, huge step but it's just about continuing to have those conversations—I know I will—and pushing people to really stand behind their words and take action," she says.
In discussing the inequalities within ballet, Copeland doesn't sugarcoat the situation, explaining that there's a long way to go to make circumstances better for dancers of color.
"I think about the ballet world and we're even farther behind when I think about race relations and just how discriminating it can be," she says.
Copeland explains that she wants to see the industry empowering Black ballerinas to wear their natural hair texture, to not be typecast in roles specific to the color of their skin, and never be asked to lighten their skin or change their appearance in any way to "blend in" with white dancers. "We should just have more diversity so that the stage looks like and represents the world and especially represents America," she says.
One way Copeland herself is working to rectify this issue is by rewriting the narratives for younger generations. In September of last year, she published her sixth book, Bunheads, which tells the story of a young Misty discovering her love of dance through the ballet Coppélia. By depicting Misty befriending a young Mexican American dancer, Catalina, and a young boy, Wolfe, in her ballet class, the children's book shows that the world of ballet can be one of diversity, friendship, and support.
"It's just so important to really highlight and showcase that for young people ... to show that it's not just this depiction of girls and women being pinned against each other," Copeland says.
The dancer notes that she wants to see more body diversity in ballet, as well; although she's had a 20-year long career with the American Ballet Theater and made history when she was made the first Black female principal dancer in the theater's 75 years, she's faced criticism for her size and shape. As Copeland has said in interviews and written about in her 2017 health and fitness book, Ballerina Body, she's been called too short, too muscular, and too curvy to be a ballerina.
Speaking now, Copeland explains that "seeing the strength and the individuality of different dancers that have different body types" is part of the beauty of the art form, and it should be celebrated as such.
"The more diverse body types you get out there, the more creative and just artistic [ballet becomes]," she says. "You will see different ways of moving, inspiring not just the same thing to be produced over and over again."
Recently, Copeland has been celebrating her own body and all that it can do through her involvement with Ford's #ShowSomeMuscle campaign, which aims to celebrate the strength of women. As "someone who hasn't often been looked at as an athlete," Copeland says this campaign is a way for her to highlight her own physical, mental, and emotional strength. Still, she adds that it's about more than just her personal story.
"It's an incredible opportunity to show all of the facets of women, period," she says. "Being a ballerina, we train eight hours a day and that takes incredible muscle and physical strength. But to be able to go on stage night after night and make it look effortless and not ever show the pain or anything that we're going through—to me, that's the story of every woman, this incredible resilience and inner strength that doesn't have to be about your physicality."
The campaign has also made Copeland think about how being able to ask for help when you need it is another definition of strength. She understands that having support through mentors and others is vital to a person's success, which is why she's so passionate about being that positive representation for young people. "I think it's just so important for the next generation, for the youth, to be able to feel that they have an incredible support system, whether it's their own family or women from afar," she says. "Even looking at Kamala [Harris] as Vice President—there are so many ways to find that inner strength by seeing someone else set that example."
Aside from advocating for diversity and positive representation through her own career and her books, Copeland is also aiming to support other dancers through the Swans For Relief fund. She co-created the fund in May of last year to support dancers across the world who have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and are experiencing financial hardship. So far, the fund has raised over $300,000. "It's just the best way that I felt like I could contribute to helping dancers in this time," Copeland says.
During the last year, the star says she's been less focused on her own career as a ballerina and instead sees the extra time given by the pandemic as an opportunity "to kind of step back and think about this art form moving forward." Don't mistake that as any form of retirement, though. Copeland is continuing to dance—she's just more committed than ever to bringing other people in the spotlight with her.