Today ballerina Misty Copeland was named the American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer, reports the New York Times. Copeland will set the stage as the first black female principal in the company’s 75-year history.
Prominent athletes usually get started at an early age and ballerinas are no exception; dancers are on their toes from the minute they learn to stand and are usually enrolled in rigorous training programs by the age of 5.
Copeland’s emergence onto the international ballet stage has been turbulent and unconventional. Before the age of 13, according to a 2014 piece in The New Yorker, she hadn’t stepped foot inside a single dance class and initially only continued ballet just to avoid disappointing her teacher. Despite her late start and body type — ballet dancers are usually willowy, not muscular — Copeland actively began pursuing ballet. One day, it just clicked.
Copeland’s ballet career didn’t come without roadblocks. The Telegraph reports that as a young dancer, she lived in a shabby motel near a bustling highway and often endured long commutes to class. At 17, she was accepted into the American Ballet Theatre but was quickly sidelined after an injury. For one year, Copeland was unable to dance. The role of Clara in ‘The Nutcracker’ — offered to Copeland pre-injury — was not again offered until after a decade with the company.
Copeland says she was cognizant of race from a very young age. Earlier this year, she told Time magazine:
“Something that my mother instilled in me, as a biracial woman herself, and me being biracial, was that the world was going to view me as a black woman, no matter what I decided to do.”
At age 17, when she began dancing at ABT, she was the only black woman in a company of 80 dancers. During her 14-year tenure at ABT, Copeland has become the first black soloist in over a decade and been candidly outspoken about shifting the landscape of racial politics within dancing.
A principal dancer attains the highest rank within a professional dance company. These dancers take part in more prominent roles, are paid more, and are the face of the ballet scene. Her role is not without detractors — as she told The Cut in 2014, some people "just don’t want to see brown skin on the stage."
Meanwhile, Copeland has built an impressive brand. Her resume includes being part of TIME’s 100 Most Influential, writing a bestselling memoir (that's been optioned to be a film), and having a reach of over half a million followers on Instagram. Her appearance in an advertisement for Under Armour has been viewed more than 8 million times.
Through dance and vigorous dedication, Copeland has made history, not allowing the color of her skin or the shape of her body hinder her progress. And her new role as principal ballerina will shift the landscape — setting the stage for ballet to be an art form for everyone, no matter their color or curves.
Nikita Redkar is the editorial intern for Fusion who loves writing all things pop culture and feminism - sprinkled with the occasional punchline. She likes cute animal gifs and dislikes long walks on the beach, plagues, and other cliches.