Misty Copeland is, undoubtedly, one of the most widely-known ballerinas in the United States. In 2015, she not only was on the cover of TIME, but she made the magazine’s list of Top Influential People in 2015. She has written her own memoir and a children’s book, and she totally blew us away in her Under Armour ad when she danced as her rejection letter to a ballet school was being read.
Now, after over 14 years with the American Ballet Theater (almost eight of those as a soloist!), Copeland, 32, has made history as the very first African-American female principal dancer in the company’s 75-year lifespan.
Despite her incredible talent and grace on the stage, this has not been an easy achievement for Copeland, who has often been rejected in the past due to her body proportions and outer appearance. “I don’t think every African-American or Latino . . . has the same body type, but, yes, that’s been one of the excuses,” Copeland said in an interview with NPR’s Codeswitch last September. “When people meet me in person, they’re usually surprised at how petite I am because there’s just [an] idea that because I’m black, I just look a certain way.”
Copeland had a later start than most ballerinas at age 13, when she took a free class that was being taught by Cindy Bradley of the San Pedro City Ballet — but she caught up quite quickly when just four years later, at age 17, she joined the American Ballet Theater. “As an adult, I was told that I didn’t have the right skin color,” she recently told CNN. “I was too muscular. I was too curvy. My breasts were too big. I was too short.”
Copeland told NPR in September that breaking into ballet as an African-American is immensely difficult due a combination of racism and reluctance to change a traditional art form. “I think it’s just something maybe that I will never escape from those people who are narrow-minded,” Copeland told NPR. “But my mission, my voice, my story, my message is not for them. And I think it’s more important to think of the people that I am influencing and helping to see a broader picture of what beauty is.”
Though she kept her head held high and persevered, enduring this prejudice was anything but simple. When talking to CNN about an American Ballet Theater staff member thinking that she didn’t fit in due to her skin color, a tearful Copeland said, “I tried to understand the person’s perspective, and how deep-rooted it is in the ballet culture. It’s so easy for them to just say these things out loud not understanding the effect it can have on someone.” But her critics were proved wrong when the Washington Ballet announced that Copeland was making her American debut in the company’s production of Swan Lake.
Now, Copeland has proved her critics wrong once again — and this time, in a way that has never before been done. Diversity should be welcomed in every single area of life. Not only did she shatter stereotypes and break boundaries in the ballet world, but she proved that no matter what critics say, change is always possible.
In that same interview with NPR last September, Misty said, “My goal has always been to be a principal dancer with [American Ballet Theater].” And now, just nine months later, she has achieved it.
Congratulations, Misty. Your perseverance is unprecedented, your determination astounding. You are an inspiration to us both on and off the stage. And you will continue to be an inspiration to so many generations of girls.
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