In its 75-year history, Misty Copeland is only the third female African American soloist of the American Ballet Theater (ABT), and its only current African American soloist.[i] Throughout her entire life as a dancer, she was constantly told that she had the wrong body for ballet. In an art that values history and perfection, Copeland has challenged it in ways that have not been seen before.
Over the summer, Under Armour launched a campaign titled, “I Will What I Want.” It aimed to highlight stories of women from various athletic backgrounds who have broken barriers to climb to the top of their respective fields.[ii] The campaign began with an ad featuring Misty Copeland showing off her “wrong” body in Under Armour athletic wears. As she dances on screen, the audience is read a rejection letter from a ballet company to a young girl. The letter reads, “Thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately you have not been accepted. You lack the right feet, Achilles tendons, turnout, torso length and bust. You have the wrong body for ballet. And at 13, you are too old to be considered.”[iii] Although this was not a letter Copeland had ever received, it may as well have been. We see that her too-muscular form, her short stature, and her bigger bust are not compatible with what ballerinas “should look like.” However, Copeland is a ballerina. She worked against the adversity she faced – racism, classism, and body shaming – and has now become a featured soloist in the American Ballet Theatre.
At thirteen years old, Copeland experienced the classist nature of the ballet world. She lived with her single mother and five siblings in a motel, and by every definition of the word, she was poor. However, she had a talent and a passion for dance that could not be quelled, despite economic setbacks. When she was first introduced to ballet at thirteen years old, she felt an instant connection. She took her first ballet class at a free program offered by the local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club of America, a national organization that provides after-school programming for underprivileged youths. It was obvious from the start that she had the potential to be something big. After being spotted in that free class by a teacher, she went to a real dance studio and took ballet there. For the first time, Copeland was a part of something. At thirteen years old, she finally found a place where she belonged, a place where her voice was heard.
However, despite finally connecting with something, she saw how different she was from the rest of the girls in her classes. Copeland was poor in a privileged art form. She was then in a situation where she was at a dance studio, dancing with girls who were her friends, but who came from an entirely different world than she had. They had money; they had stability. It was embarrassing for her as a young child. Copeland has said that at that age she just wanted to fit in, and she did not in that respect.
When her dance teacher learned that Copeland could not afford the classes, she fought for her to go live with her so that she could feel wanted and continue her work in ballet.[iv] In an interview with Anne Mavity, Copeland explains that ballet training is not something that is accessible to all communities: it is inherently classist.[v] There is a lot more that needs to be economically accounted for than just lessons. Leotards and tights cost money; shoes cost money; costumes cost money; travel to and from lessons costs money; even proper food costs money. For someone who does not have the income to spare on ballet and all that it involves, becoming a ballerina is not a practical dream to have. Luckily for Copeland, her dance teacher was able to provide for her in ways that her mother could not have.
At eighteen years old, Copeland became a member of the ABT corps. The classist adversity she faced as a child was not the end of her struggles. Not only was she was the only African American woman to be the in ABT Company for approximately ten years, but she did not fit the preferred body requirements of a ballerina. When Copeland was nineteen, she finally hit puberty. Her whole body changed: her muscles were well defined and her bust was “too big.” She had to relearn how to fit into the ballerina mold without losing herself.
During this time as a corps member, she was doing so much: learning all of the company parts, learning some principal roles, and working with guest choreographers. It was too stressful for her body, and she got hurt. After her injury and her going through puberty, ABT did not really understand how to take care of her. She was meant to recover from her injury on her own and reconcile her new body with the image the company wanted. ABT told her to to “lengthen,” which translates to “lose weight.” Not really understanding nutrition and dieting, Copeland started losing hope with her body. She began overeating: she was upset with the way she looked but did not understand how to fix it. Through mentoring, she learned and became stronger than ever.
One of the biggest adversities Copeland has faced has been her race. Historically, ballet has been a white art. One of the selling points of ballet for Copeland is its purity. She loves how many aspects of ballet have not changed much in the past few centuries. However, this sort of perpetuation because of history is problematic. When speaking with Mavity, Copeland says that the ballerina is representing the historical art form of ballet, an art form that has always had a white woman at the helm. She explains that the white woman is the representation of ballet to the world.[vi] When people picture ballerinas, the first image to pop in their minds probably is one of a thin, lithe, young, white woman. Copeland explains that, for many people, it is difficult to see something different, something outside of the norm.[vii]
When Copeland performed her first solo role as the titular Firebird, it was her face that graced the outside the Metropolitan Opera House. It was the opening night of their season at the Metropolitan Opera House in the spring of 2012. She went outside, looked out, and saw image of a curvy black woman with her breasts out and her back arched not only on display but as the image ABT was using to promote the spring season. This picture of Copeland meant much more to her than just being the face of ABT; it was an important moment because it welcomed the African American community into the ballet world. Nothing about that image fit with the stereotypical ballerina frame the world was accustomed to seeing. She broke the mold.
For Copeland, one of the hardest parts about being the only African American woman in a ballet company was the loneliness; she has said that it is hard to exist in this world by oneself.[viii] Many young, minority dancers have been discouraged from ballet because of their race; they have been told to explore modern dance or hip hop instead, or even worse, have trained all of their childhoods and adolescents in ballet and will never see their dream realized because of their race. Copeland’s story offers inspiration for them all. Despite the adversity that is part of being an African American in ballet, it is possible to achieve the dream of becoming a ballerina. If Copeland could do it, then anyone can, too.
Misty Copeland is a rebel. She is black, she does not have the ideal ballerina body type, and she came from a poor background. She is everything a ballerina should not be. But she is indeed a ballerina and a soloist for ABT. However, if it were not for that one dance class at the Boys and Girls Club in her childhood, Copeland may not have become the ballet great that she is today. It is important for programs like the Boys and Girls Club of America to continue to exist. They offer youths opportunities that are not reachable in any other way, such as free dance classes. While Copeland may have paved the way for young ballerinas to come, they would have no means of making it to that path without programs like the Boys and Girls Club. They give underprivileged boys and girls the chance to be a part of something. This organization aims to “promote and enhance the development of boys and girls by instilling a sense of competence, usefulness, belonging and influence,”[ix] just as it did for Misty Copeland.
[i] “I Will What I Want: American Ballet Theater Soloist Misty Copeland’s Under Armour Ad Tackles Racism, Feminism and the Athleticism of Dance.” Classicalite RSS. August 5, 2014. Accessed December 17, 2014.
[ii] “Under Armour Unveils Newest Chapter Of I WILL WHAT I WANT™ Campaign Featuring Gisele Bundchen.” MarketWatch. September 4, 2014. Accessed December 16, 2014.
[iii] Under Armour. “Misty Copeland – I Will What I Want.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 July 2014. Web, 1:00. 16 December 2014.
[iv] Life in Motion, Copeland
[ix] “Why Boys and Girls Clubs?” Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Accessed December 19, 2014. http://bgca.org/whoweare/Pages/WhoWeAre.aspx.