A day in the life of a Black ballerina

The new series “A Day in the Life” recently featured Misty Copeland, who is a soloist with the American Ballet Theater. Copeland is currently the only Black soloist at ABT and was for eleven years the only Black woman in the company. She’s also on track to become the company’s first ever Black woman principal.

“For Misty,” the narration of the episode notes from the start, “dance is more than just about performing. Being one of the only African American soloists has challenged Misty to not just be better at her craft, but also be an inspiration to girls who are just like herself.”

The episode features Copeland visiting a Boys and Girls Club to hang out with a class of Black ballet students, having a meeting about the line of dancewear she’s designing for curvaceous dancers like herself, and rehearsing at the Dance Theater of Harlem.

Ballet is an overwhelmingly white field – ABT, as far as American classical companies go, is considered diverse. And while there are some men of colour who have been able to break into the top ranks, women of colour are few and far between, in any rank. Black dancers are often encouraged, as Copeland notes in the episode, to choose modern or contemporary dance over classical, because they are more likely to succeed there. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. And while the tradition of Black contemporary dance in America is an invaluable one – Alvin Ailey is one of the most exciting and important dance companies in the world, in my opinion – it’s high time that we had more people of colour in classical ballet, too.

Copeland is aware of the power of her position as a role model to young Black ballerinas. “It makes me really emotional,” she says of her visit to the Boys and Girls Club. “I see other girls that, it’s weird to say, but that have the same skin colour as me. Maybe they can see themselves in me, and I see myself in them. It’s a comforting thing, and hopefully I can motivate them, just seeing someone that looks like them.” Being the only Black woman at ABT for over a decade, she says, “I’ve kind of found my voice.”

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/noplain/ Jane

    I remember being really surprised at how little diversity was in the NYCB: I don’t know what I expected, but I was quite shocked. Maybe because the Australian Ballet has quite a few dancers from across Asia?

    Is this available to watch outside of the US anywhere?

  • http://feministing.com/members/franziakafka/ Franzia Kafka

    Other ballet companies are a bit more progressive with the racial aspect, such as Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. I believe a couple of his African American dancers danced previously with ABT or other national companies. Aesha Ash, a current LINES dancer, actually has her own blog reflecting on being black in the predominantly white ballet world: http://theblackswandiaries.blogspot.com/ .