“Many [Black] dancers never had the platform and the freedom to speak the way I do — and still have a job,” Misty Copeland told ArtsATL recently.
Much has been written about Copeland, the first Black ballet dancer promoted to principal at American Ballet Theatre. How she had an unstable childhood in Southern California, at one point living in a motel with her mother and five siblings. How her ballet teacher encouraged her to pursue a career in an art form that is, still, overwhelmingly White. How she performed in a Prince music video and an Under Armour commercial and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2015.
Most ballet dancers find the stage to be their comfort place, not the public sphere. But Copeland, now 40 and married with a new baby, isn’t your usual ballet dancer. With the help of manager Gilda Squire, she has used her celebrity to speak out about racism in ballet in countless interviews and public appearances.
She was the focus of a documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale, and has written several books, including her 2014 memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. There’s even a Misty Barbie. “Gilda saw something in me,” Copeland says. “She and I have a shared goal to bring ballet to more people and diversify it. That’s been my goal from day one, and it has never wavered.”
Copeland is on the road promoting her new book, The Wind at My Back. She will be in Decatur on December 2 at a Georgia Center for the Book event to be held at First Baptist Church of Decatur. Angela Harris, executive artistic director of Dance Canvas, will moderate the conversation. The event is sold out but a waiting list is available.
Copeland’s approach isn’t confrontational; instead she educates and inspires, aiming to shine a bright light on the racism that stains the art form. In her book, she celebrates her friendship with Raven Wilkinson, a Black ballerina who danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured extensively in the United States, including Atlanta in 1957, where Wilkinson experienced the humiliation of racism. She was the only dancer of color in the company, Copeland writes. The manager at the hotel where the company was booked insisted she not stay there. It was for Whites only. Tired of these and other indignities, Wilkinson moved to Europe and continued her career with the Dutch National Ballet.
In spite of Copeland’s commitment, and the book’s celebration of Wilkinson, there’s a feeling in segments of the Black ballet world that Copeland’s celebrity is a double-edged sword.
According to Harris, who supports Copeland and loves watching her perform: “While we absolutely should be celebrating her accomplishments, we also have to be careful that the light that the media shines on Misty doesn’t dim the light on all of the incredible Black ballerinas who came before her and all of the ones that are currently out there.”
Nena Gilreath, co-founder and co-artistic director of Atlanta’s Ballethnic Dance Company with Waverly T. Lucas II, is also a supporter of Copeland and her work, but is frustrated that dancers and educators like her work for a lifetime but are little known outside of their immediate community. “It’s unfortunate that you have to be discovered in order to highlight what we’ve been doing all along,” she says. “But Misty is a talented dancer. She has a huge platform. She’s paid her dues and she’s been able to use her talent and her platform to move things forward.”
Gilreath is excited to see Copeland working with dancers from Dance Theatre of Harlem — for instance, she has curated festivals with the company and participated in panels with former Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerina Virginia Johnson at Jacob’s Pillow.
Gilreath and Lucas performed with that company for several years before leaving New York to join Atlanta Ballet in the 1970s. After a brief stint with the company under Robert “Bobby” Barnett’s leadership, the husband and wife team realized that creating their own company was the only way to give Black dancers in Atlanta a place to train and perform.
Copeland says Wilkinson, who died in 2018, encouraged her to see herself as part of a larger whole — as someone who can speak out in ways the older dancer never could. Wilkinson taught Copeland about the Black dancers who preceded her and on whose shoulders she dances; she now feels she has a responsibility to share their stories in whatever way possible.
The Wind at My Back is one vehicle, but Copeland is ubiquitous on social media; she has 1.8 million followers on Instagram alone. It’s one of many platforms where she demonstrates her commitment to changing the ballet landscape for future generations.
Copeland and many Black dance leaders feel that diversifying American ballet companies isn’t happening nearly fast enough. According to Harris, there is still a huge amount of work to be done. Copeland wants to address the issue by being a resource and engaging in potentially difficult conversations with ballet companies throughout the United States. “This is the best way I can use my power,” she says.
She also hopes her new initiative, Ballet Explorations: Ballet Offers Leadership Development (BE BOLD), will make a difference. Launched in September through The Misty Copeland Foundation, the program provides free ballet classes for Black and Latino children.
For now, it’s operational only in five sites in the Bronx but Copeland hopes to expand it to other cities, possibly Atlanta, where Boys & Girls Clubs of America is based. Supporting young ballet students is the first step in creating a larger pool of Black dancers from which companies can hire, she explains.
“It’s not necessarily about creating the next ballet superstar, although that would be great,” she says. “It’s to give young people the tools to become leaders in their communities and utilize the beauty, the strength, the stamina and grace that you get in ballet.” It’s a perfect-circle moment for Copeland — she was introduced to ballet through a Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, California.
Training young people of color and preparing the talented ones for a ballet career, Copeland says, also means ballet schools have to hire teachers of color who can nurture students and not turn them away. She was fortunate to have a teacher who encouraged her, but Black and brown dancers are often told by their teachers that ballet isn’t a space for them, she says. She has also had conversations in communities of color that reveal many African Americans believe ballet is not for them. “We need to give them the opportunity to fall in love with the art form.”
Copeland is on leave from American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and plans to return for the 2023-24 season. “ABT is America’s national ballet company and there is a lot of work to be done for us to reflect America within the company,” she says. “Companies need to put in the time and do the research when they bring in dancers and not use the same excuses: The pool is small; there’s not enough Black dancers out there.”