In 2007, Misty Danielle Copeland became the first African-American ballerina to be a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater (ABT) in twenty years. Since then, Misty Copeland has become a recognized icon for breaking down barriers in the art of dance. All her determination and resilience was built on the work of her mentor, Raven Wilkinson. Wilkinson was an African-American ballerina performing in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. “She’s been through so much more than I could ever imagine, in the 1950s and experiencing racism in that time. It just felt like, ‘I can do this,’” Copeland expressed.1 Misty Copeland knew racism was not going to stop her from chasing her dreams.
As a young child, Misty Copeland expressed herself in the form of dance and instantly fell in love with the art. With her family’s hardship, dance was her escape and all her worries went away. Some of these worries included a lack of finances, a lack of comfortable living conditions, and a mother constantly changing boyfriends.2 Dance offered Copeland a way to relax and forget about all her problems. A prodigy by the age of thirteen, she surpassed the other dancers even with the many years they had ahead of her.
Once her training became more intense, Copeland began competing and receiving scholarships. At age fifteen, she was accepted with a full scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet’s Intensive Summer Program. In 2000, Copeland was also named the ABT’s Coca-Cola Scholar. After the program, the ABT invited Copeland to be part of their own studio company. She was the only African-American woman out of eighty dancers, an impressive feat since she was often challenged by her race and physique.3 “I had been told to pancake my skin a lighter color to fit in with the rest of the company,” she wrote.4 Nonetheless, she rose up with her extraordinary skill, and the lack of racial diversity came to the forefront, beginning to make waves in the ballet world.
Stephanie Webre challenged the status quo by casting two African Americans to play the leading roles in Swan Lake: Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland. Copeland and Mack were exquisite for their dancing. However, their performance was also admired for Webre’s ethnic inclusiveness, because dancers of color rarely get the chance for leading roles. According to Karen Sparks: “Many companies and schools endorse retrograde aesthetic values that place dancers of color at a disadvantage in the realms of hiring, castings, and promotions.”5 This discouraged African-American dancers from continuing on and studying ballet. For these reasons, there have been insufficient breaks for dancers of color.
After two decades, Misty Copeland became the first African-American soloist dancer to perform for ABT. Her story quickly made her a role model. “It made me feel really empowered not to let the negativity of racism even to this day affect me and my career. I can be strong and persevere and allow my talent to shine beyond the color of my skin,” she wrote.6 Misty Copeland became an advocate for “diversifying the field of ballet and creating access for dancers of varying racial and economic backgrounds.”5
Since receiving a leading role, Copeland has served on the advisory committee for the ABT’s Project Plié, which is a program “to increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet that offers guidance to dance instructors in diverse communities around the United States.”8 Project Plié’s objective is to discover the next “Misty Copeland” and invest in his or her training. The program is made up of a combination of corporations within the dance community to provide scholarships and many opportunities for dancers of color. Project Plié offers internships to encourage many dancers of various backgrounds to pursue their dreams of becoming professional ballerinas. In order to obtain a scholarship or internship, the student must attend many auditions and attract the attention of the advisory committee. Once selected, Project Plié interns are eligible to receive a scholarship to live during their time in New York City. The scholarship consists of roundtrip transportation, a metro card, and housing assistance. This organization could not be what it is today without Misty Copeland’s determination. She continues to advocate for dancers of color and dancers of unprivileged backgrounds to pursue their dreams of becoming a dancer. Today, several ballet companies have made progress in changing racial inequality in ballet. Just within the last decade, many companies have recruited dancers and have begun to change the complexion on the stage. Misty Danielle Copeland is breaking the racial barriers and paving the way for future ballerinas.9