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Misty Copeland makes dance history as first black female soloist with American Ballet Theatre

with 15 comments


By Jim Farber

Misty Copeland’s performances Friday and Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in American Ballet Theatre’s production of “Swan Lake,” will have special significance for the 25-year-old ballerina.

In addition to being a highly anticipated homecoming for the former child star of San Pedro Ballet, Copeland’s renditions of the “pas de trois” and dance of the “four swans” will codify her recently elevated position as the first black woman in the history of ABT to ascend to the level of soloist.

Copeland says that the promotion is even more significant because, at this time, she is the only black dancer in the company, male or female – a situation that has made her life difficult.

Copeland spoke by phone from New York City, where she was nursing “a stress reaction” of her second metatarsal, rather than accompanying ABT to Miami for a performance.

“Hopefully I’ll be fine in time to come to L.A.,” she said. “They decided the day before we were supposed to leave for Miami that I shouldn’t go. I’m just being careful with it. I caught it before it got too bad.”Compared to most would-be ballerinas, Copeland came late to the art form. She didn’t begin dancing until she was 13. However, only two years after her first lessons at the San Pedro Dance Center, Copeland took first place in the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards.

“That was the first time I ever experienced nerves,” she says. “Before that, I don’t think I was fully aware of what I was doing – it was all so new to me. That experience changed my career.”

Copeland then came under the tutelage of Diane Lauridsencq, a prominent South Bay dance teacher and former member of ABT. Lauridsen said she immediately saw Copeland’s potential.

“It was clear that she was very talented,” says Lauridsen, who has a reputation for being a stern task mistress. “She’s a freak. All the great dancers are freaks of nature. You have to have this body that’s extremely hyper-mobile and proportioned a certain way. And it was evident right away that she had that stuff. She also had extraordinary stage presence. She was kissed by God and has worked very, very hard to make use of it.”

The way Copeland sees it, becoming a member of ABT was almost inevitable. After studying with former ABT dancers, she enrolled in the company’s summer intensive classes. From there, she became a member of ABT’s junior Studio Company. Then, in 2001, Copeland was invited to join the company as a member of the corps de ballet.

What Copeland did not anticipate was the emotional stress of being singled out as a role model, combined with the cultural isolation of being the only black dancer in the company.

Copeland had become something of a Jackie Robinson of classical ballet.

“It’s felt like a long, hard struggle to get here,” she says. “It definitely wasn’t as easy as it was when I started dancing and things were just happening. Getting into the company kind of opened my eyes. I think I wasn’t as aware that I was pretty much always the only African-American girl in my class. It never really caught my eye until I got into the company. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m the only African-American woman.’ And ever since I joined, I’ve been the only one. There’s not even an African-American guy in the company.”

Copeland notes that ABT has never had a black female soloist or principal.

“They’ve never had a black woman make it past the corps de ballet. So it was kind of scary. I wondered if it could ever happen. It made me think about leaving several times. I’ve been in the company for seven years now, and I’ve watched black women come and go, auditioning, that are gorgeous, that don’t get in. And you wonder why. And you see dancers in the company that you know are not nearly as good.”

Before joining ABT, Copeland says, the question of her race never was that significant to her. But those around her, she said, knew it could be a problem.

“I think a lot of it was maybe kept away from me because I was so young,” she says. “I would go away to do these guest scenes with one of my teachers (Charles Maplecq, a former ABT dancer). I remember we went away to South Dakota. He didn’t specifically tell me, but I remember overhearing him talking to my mother, saying, ‘I’m actually really nervous to bring her here, being a black girl and taking her to this small town to do a lead role.’ Looking back on it now, oh my gosh, I never thought of that.”

Speaking from the company’s New York offices, ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, admits, “Ballet is a white man’s art. It started in the French court. So it’s going to take a long time for it to filter into other cultures. But I think the visual cliche of the all-white corps de ballet is crumbling. It’s slowly breaking down.

“Misty is an exceptional case,” says McKenzie, a former dancer. “She’s enormously talented and versatile. And that is one of the enduring qualities that will make her succeed at ABT.”

According to McKenzie, the dearth of black ballet dancers is a cultural and technical issue.

“African-Americans don’t have the kind of training that gets them far enough ahead to be dancing at this level by the time they’re 17 or 18,” he says. “That’s something we’re trying to address in our education system, to reach way out there and give everybody access to quality training. It’s not a question of this being an exclusive club. (ABT has multiple Asian and Hispanic dancers). This is going to take a generation to fix.”

Copeland is well aware of the barriers she will have to overcome.

“The ballerina is the ballet,” she says. “It’s all about the woman. She is the leading role, always. So, to see an African-American woman in that role – I don’t know if that will be accepted or if that’s what people want to see. Times have changed, but it seems very slowly in the ballet world.”



Written by Symphony

March 28, 2008 at 6:16 pm

15 Responses

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  1. thanks for the article, I’ve needed research on Misty because I am currently making a video project for my ballet school about her that will be a test grade. It is due in 13 hours, so I needed this information. Thanks, again 🙂


    November 13, 2008 at 1:48 am

  2. With all due respect to Mr. Mckenzie, I think a second look at history and the enormous success and significant artistic contribution that Dance Theater of Harlem has made to the art of ballet simply cannot be overlooked. This was fixed generations ago. This is no longer a “white mans art”. It is world wide.

    Mpambo Wina

    December 3, 2008 at 9:41 pm

  3. OMG!!! I know she is a really good dancer, but she is only half black!! I mean…not to be mean, but your saying that she is the first BLACK female soloist in ABT…when she is only half black!!! I still love the article


    December 28, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    • @ Jason, she herself (Misty Copeland) referred to herself numerous times as African-American. If you don’t like the way in which she embraces her heritage, maybe you should take it up with Misty. Let her know that you don’t like it. (oh please)


      April 13, 2010 at 8:37 am

  4. I’m from New York and I’d like to know when Misty will be in the area for another performance …..let me know soon,

    P.S. – I saw Misty, personally, up at Avondale On The Hudson at the Fisher Performing Center and she was fantastic!

    Bob Glover

    December 28, 2008 at 7:13 pm

  5. Jason considering Ms Copeland calls herself African-American (and not to mention society) I think Mr. Farber’s article is fine.


    December 29, 2008 at 7:30 am



    February 3, 2009 at 11:21 am

  7. Misty is black and was raised black. Not to disown any other parts of our heritage, we consider ourselves to be black. I am her mother. I am half black/half italian and Misty is half black, a quarter german and a quarter italian. I was adopted at the age of 3 days by black parents. I have always considered myself to be black and my kids were raised as such. Regardless, she has worked hard and accomplished a great deal at a young age. Her true desire is to be a role model for not only black kids but any minorities who think ballet as an art form is not an option for them because maybe they don’t have the stereo-typical ballet body, etc. She wants people to know if they have true talent, an ardent desire and good work ethic, they can achieve their dreams. She also wants to give back to the community and always makes herself available to perform for friends, past teachers etc. I can’t say enough good things about her. Not only is she an amazing talent, she is a good girl and wonderful person. Please understand, I nor Misty would never want to take away progress and accomplishments that blacks dancing for ANY company have made in the field of ballet, particularly classical ballet but the fact is ABT being a predominantly caucausian company makes Misty having been promoted to soloist extra special and historical. Thank you


    Sylvia DelaCerna

    Sylvia DelaCerna

    March 1, 2009 at 1:17 am

  8. I just want to say that you are so gorgous and your phazeke is crazy I cann’t see your toes in any of the pictures but I’m willing to bet they are sexy and since i have a cute foot fetish I think you should take at lease 1 picture showing a close up of your toes


    March 8, 2009 at 10:05 pm

  9. I applaud Misty for her accomplishments. I also applaud Misty’s mother’s reply in comment #7 for explaining to others the significance of her daughter’s accomplishment and putting the seal on her race/heritage, so there should be no questions asked or disrespectful comments from anyone regarding Misty’s race. We should all applaud Misty for being part of a well-known dance company, and she will and is a role model from many little girls who come from a rainbow of many races/cultures who will follow in Misty’s footsteps someday. Congratulations to Misty!


    March 12, 2009 at 9:08 pm

  10. First of all, it’s wonderful that Misty’s mom actually took the time to come to her defense regarding the race issue/statement, but I feel it’s unfortunate that this is a matter that was even brought up. I just recently had the opportunity to speak with her and was amazed that she exhibited no type of “diva” attitude whatsoever. In fact, she actually seemed appreciative to “me” for inviting her to take part in a program later this year. BTW, that program will be in relation to a documentary I’m doing on another history-making dancer by the name of Janet Collins (of Black and French heritage). The trailer can be found on youtube, so please give it a view. Wish you the best, Misty!

    M. J.

    April 18, 2009 at 11:43 pm

  11. I, first became aware of misty back in 1999 during the custody problem her mother had with the Bradley family. The tension and discussion regarding her well being as a dancer was intense her mother stood her ground and fought for her child. I will never forget what she said” just because I don’t have the money is no reason for me to give up my child” I really felt for her and their situation. I, had not heard anything about misty for years today I found an old news article about her and decided to google her. I was happy to see her doing so well she deserves the best. I had been wondering for years what happened to the little dancer I and my niece had bumped into at a local Socal store. I, had been a dancer in college and became aware of the bias toward black dancers in classical ballet. I, put my main focus on the football field and, made the All American football team ,with offers to turn pro who knows if I had the training in dance during my early years my whole life may have taken another direction with more than a 40″ vertical at 5’10” 160 blessed with excellent flixability unreal strength and a well porportion body. sometimes I think the best dancers are doing other things… thank God thats not what happened with misty!!!to say blacks can’t Ballet is so stereo
    white men can’t jump!! guess who the majority of world class high jumpers (white europeans)

    E.S. Wheeler

    March 19, 2010 at 12:12 pm

  12. n who said she is half black if you are fair skinned and your parent are black and caucasian then people will say your half, but if a person has the same parent but is dark skinned then people say your black so what is half black silly she is a person of color and a great dancer


    June 18, 2013 at 2:37 am

  13. Something about this bugs me big time. The talk seems to be all about race – in terms of Misty Copeland. How truly silly. She is a fabulous dancer and that’s all that ought to matter. Instead, it’s all race talk and really that is so damned boring I could scream. She is a wonderful dancer and that’s all that matters no matter what her genetic makeup is because it is unimportant to how she performs and it’s time that people realize that and stop boring the hell out of the rest of us.

    Pascal Behr

    October 15, 2013 at 3:59 am

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