Photo: Courtesy of Getty/Jenn Baumgardner
Dancer Misty Copeland’s career has been one for the history books: After overcoming many challenges early in her life (at one point, her family was basically homeless, living out of a motel), Copeland started dancing at 13—much later than most professional dancers—and joined the American Ballet Theatre in April 2001. She rose up to become the company’s third-ever black soloist in 2007, playing the lead roles in The Firebird and Coppélia. (Her story was the subject of Under Armor’s viral “I Will What I Want” ad.)
Now, Copeland is the first black dancer to play the role of Odette in a top company’s production of Swan Lake. She performed alongside fellow African American dancer Brooklyn Mack at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center this weekend.
“Swan Lake was not something I ever saw in my future in terms of dancing the lead,” she tells the BBC. “It’s just something that’s so engrained in the ballet culture, in us as dancers that you just envision a certain type of person portraying that role so it’s incredible to be able to be a brown swan.”
Copeland opened up to ELLE.com just last May about racism in ballet and her struggle with it. “People make comments. For some people, I don’t look like a ballerina,” she said then. But the opportunities for black dancers are improving, Copeland tells the BBC. “I do see a change and as much criticism as I get for talking about it as much as I do, I think it’s forcing people to make changes. It’s putting the spotlight on the ballet world and in a way that it’s never been done before.”
Copeland herself is happy to pave the way for others. “I had some really incredible people who mentored me, and gave me things I never got from my parents. I think it’s so important for young dancers of color to have someone who looks like them as an example—someone they can touch,” she explained to ELLE.com. “I tell them to be true to themselves.”
The ballerina’s journey has instilled in her the difference between belonging versus fitting in. “Belonging shouldn’t mean you are like everyone else,” she told The Washington Post. “You want to feel accepted, but you don’t have to look like everyone around you, you don’t have to follow the exact same path as someone before you. I think that’s been my experience—that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be unique, that you can set your own path.”