Misty Copeland on Being Black in Ballet: 'People Are Narrow Minded'

The amazing Misty Copeland recently went on NPR Morning Edition, where she discussed her experiences being the American Ballet Theatre’s first black soloist in two decades.

Professional ballet has a terrible lack of diversity. A 2012 Guardian article pointed out that there were no black dancers in Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet — a company with over 200 members — and, one year later, the Moscow Times ran an infuriating article about the discrimination faced by Precious Adams, one of the few black dancers to attend the academy. It’s not just Russia, of course: there are very few black dancers at prominent British and American companies as well. As Stacia L. Brown argues at the Washington Post, this is particularly troubling because “ballerinas have long been avatars of possibility for little girls.” She adds, “When black and brown girls don’t see black ballerinas in the world’s most prestigious troupes, the absence intimates diminished possibility.”

In the NPR interview, Copeland discusses this systemic racism and the barriers black dancers face. “I think that the reason [it’s hard for black women to break in] is the racism and not wanting to change this very traditional art form that has been successful in the way it is for so long.”

There’s a (very obviously racist) flawed assumption in the industry that non-white women “don’t have the right body type,” which Copeland shuts down entirely:

I don’t think every African-American or Latino have the same body type, but, yes, that’s been one of the excuses … saying that African-Americans are too muscular or just aren’t lean enough. Usually they say, “Oh, they have flat feet so they just don’t have the flexibility that it takes to create the line in a point shoe.” …
[People] hear those words from critics — I’m “too bulky,” I’m “too busty” — and then they meet me in person and they say, “You look like a ballerina, I don’t understand.” And I think it’s just something maybe I will never escape from: those people who are narrow-minded. But my mission, my voice, my story, my message is not for them. I think it’s more important to think of the people I am influencing and helping to see a broader picture of what beauty is.

For that reason, she says, she wrote a children’s book to inspire young black women to pursue their dreams. In the book, she explicitly tells the reader that they will succeed. When asked if she felt uncomfortable making such a strong assertion, she responded, “Young kids need to hear those words, because I think that if you say ‘maybe’ or ‘it’s possible,’ I think it’s very easy for them to interpret that as ‘no, it’s not.’ There are so many opportunities beyond these top companies that they can be a part of the ballet world in some way, and so I think its necessary for them to hear that.”

You can listen to the rest of the interview — which is great — at NPR if you’d like to continue feeling inspired and awe-struck by the greatness that is Misty Copeland.

Image via Getty.

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