Human Interest

“I’m a Black Ballerina!” Why Misty Copeland Won’t Erase Her Race

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by Zain Minkah Murdock & Abesi Manyando

NEW YORK, NEW YORK--MAY 22, 2014--Prima ballerina Misty Copeland will be a make history as the 1st African-American woman to dance the lead role of Swanilda in the famous ballet Coppelia. She will also be a guest judge on "So You Think You Can Dance." Portrait of Copeland taken at Lincoln Center of Mary 22, 2014.  (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NEW YORK–MAY 22, 2014–Prima ballerina Misty Copeland will be a make history as the 1st African-American woman to dance the lead role of Swanilda in the famous ballet Coppelia. She will also be a guest judge on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Portrait of Copeland taken at Lincoln Center of Mary 22, 2014. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Ballerinas are poised, agile, elegant. They remind me of the flowers I used to plant in the yard with my mom as a child. They sway blissfully in the wind, aiming for perfection, their tutus fanning out from their hips like delicate petals. By  appearance ballerinas seem to be delicate and ethereal.  They define every element of the term “perfection”   Misty Copeland’s “A Ballerina’s Tale” is far from delicate. It is a story about remarkable strength and resilience.  It is not about perfection but rather mastering your imperfections to seize every opportunity that manifests your dreams into reality.

The documentary  chronicles the  journey of  Copeland’s  rise as the  first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre.”  Considering how long ballet has been part of modern culture and the fact that paleness is as synonymous to ballet as tutus, you can only imagine how historic and challenging the entire scenario is.  The  art-form of ballet’s precise focus of synchronization and uniformed visual blending  has made it a difficult task for Black ballerinas to be as accepted or much less rise in premier Ballet. In her documentary,  Copeland, Victoria Rowell and other Black ballerinas spoke about the extreme struggles they have endured in rising as notable ballerinas who didn’t fit  into the usual format of the ballet culture.   This is not just a small aspect of Copeland’s career, in fact it is an enormous aspect of who she is. Copeland refuses to erase race in her story because it is a critical part of her ballerina tale.

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The struggle of a Black Ballerina is very real. Years ago Copeland was discouraged  after reading a  New York Times piece entitled, “Where are all the Black Swans?”  The article pointed out the absence of lead Black Ballerinas in principal roles and mentioned Copeland as the  lone Black dancer at the Corps de Ballet.   “This made me feel like why should I even try if I’m not going to make it” said Copeland in her documentary.  Just like her everyday there are little black dancers who may feel like giving up because they don’t feel as if  they belong in ballet. S o for this reason Copeland’s ethnicity is the nucleus of her story.  Her being a Black ballerina should not be omitted because it is a key element in hopefully changing a culture of exclusion that has been accepted in ballet with what has been a justified  excuse of black ballerina’s throwing off the picturesque uniformed image envisioned by choreographers There are a  few people who feel that  that Copeland didn’t have to focus on the fact that she was Black in her documentary.  This would have been intellectually dishonest. In a tweet, Erin Roy stated the following:

“2night #ABallerinasTalePBS Though let’s inspire thru beauty & joy of ballet & orchestral music rather than label ’em bastions of white supremacy,”  (@iamerinroy)

Like the  aesthetics of  a flower, ballet represent everything that is beautiful.  Nevertheless,  no matter how beautiful the most exquisite flower in the world may be, it still succumbs to the harsh winter winds and thieving insects threatening its ‘perfect’ surroundings. Let’s face the facts, if a flower is exposed to the sun less or watered less often than another, would you blame the flower for wilting? Would it not be factually incorrect to not connect the two mutually exclusive factors and not omit that the challenges the flower endured are a part of its story. No matter what the external perspective may be, internally the root of every story has merit.

NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 26:  Ballet dancer Misty Copeland performs during the BET Black Girls Rock show at New Jersey Performing Arts Center on October 26, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Brad Barket/BET/Getty Images for BET)

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Copeland responded to Roy’s tweet saying, “That’s all wonderful when race isn’t involved…But I’m a black ballerina with black American experiences.” In translation, no on matter how immensely  beautiful and joyful an art form may be, artists of color still suffer from racial issues in America. And, that seems to be a valid point of discussion. If Misty Copeland is suggesting that her experiences as a black ballerina in the dance industry may be unique to the experiences of many of her white colleagues, then why not talk about it? Why cover it up? A documentary is meant to document a point in time, or in other words, a part of reality. Being black in America is an affliction that should be mentioned alongside her leg fracture and familiarity with common insecurities.There is no “race card” being swiped here and it is unfair to erase the pain of what comes with being Black in an arena that is not as accepting of your Blackness. Take a moment to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoe (or rather, ballet slippers). To order your copy of A Ballerina’s Tale please click here

written by Zain-Minkah Murdock and Abesi Manyando

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