Misty Copeland: From ‘Unlikely Ballerina’ to Standing Ovations

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misty copelandBy Demetria Irwin

“She’s dancing for all of us.”

A tall Black woman, a retired ballerina, uttered those words to her friend as they stood in line to see Misty Copeland make her Swan Lake debut for the American Ballet Theatre. The lobby of the MET Opera House hummed with similar sentiments. Well-dressed little girls of all races clutched tutu-clad brown dolls. Longtime fine arts patrons sipped champagne cocktails at the bar as they mingled among a multitude that was decidedly more diverse than the usual ticket-holding crowd at ballets.

The excitement was not just for seeing a talented ballerina play the role many dancers dream to one day fill. The dancers, the hopeful little girls, the fine arts patrons — they were all there to watch Copeland become the first Black woman lead in ABT’s version of Swan Lake.

As expected, Copeland was a marvel. Her grace, athleticism and precision commanded the stage. The audience broke into applause at numerous points during the performance, and at the end, Copeland smiled and blinked back tears as she took in a standing ovation that lasted several minutes.

Receiving flowers after a performance is standard procedure, but this time there were two special guests who bucked the tradition of only men giving flowers. One was Copeland’s mentor Raven Wilkinson, the trail-blazing ballerina who in 1955 became the first Black ballerina in the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. At 90 years old, Wilkinson still maintains a certain elegance and dancer’s grace. After she gave Copeland the flowers, she gracefully fluttered her arms as Copeland had just done in her Swan Lake role.

The other flower bearer was Lauren Anderson, the first Black woman principal at the Houston Ballet and the first Black woman to play the lead in a professional company’s version of Swan Lake. Anderson literally lifted Copeland off her feet as they embraced.

Just days after Copeland’s glorious Swan Lake performance, she received even better news. She was promoted to principal dancer, the first Black woman to achieve such a feat in ABT’s 75-year history.

The 32-year-old spoke about the promotion at a press conference. “So many young dancers of color stop dancing at an early age because they just don’t think there will be a career path for them. I hope that will change,” Copeland said.

And she is hands on about her mission. In addition to her memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” Copeland has authored a children’s book called “Firebird” and she regularly gives her time and energy to children, sometimes through the Boys and Girls Club, an organization to which she is an alum.

She subtitled her book “An Unlikely Ballerina” because she does not have the typical ballerina story. Copeland didn’t start dancing until she was 13. Most ballerinas start classes as toddlers. In addition to that, she’s Black (a rarity in the world of classical dance) and has womanly curves along with her toned muscles, a departure from the more wiry frames that people associate with ballet.

She was told she didn’t have the right body for dance, she was looked over because of her race, yet she has managed to overcome all of those obstacles to reach the pinnacle of ballet achievement. Each barrier Copeland knocks down, makes success in ballet that much more attainable for the little brown girls who today are being told they don’t have the right body or color for the stage.

Copeland is more aptly called “an unconventional ballerina” and not because of her race. Perfect pirouettes on prestigious classical dance stages are not the only items on her resume. This is a woman who has toured with Prince. She has an endorsement deal with fitness apparel giant Under Armour. Yes, she can don elaborate costumes and twirl in Swan Lake, but she’s also cool enough to tour with a music legend and tough enough to flex her limber muscles alongside NFL players and soccer pros. No other ballerina has achieved such a level of pop-culture relevance. Her name reverberates far beyond the narrow confines of the ballet world.

Copeland’s accomplishments are remarkable. It does feel like she’s dancing for all of us.

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