Misty Copeland On Broadening 'Beauty' And Being Black In Ballet

Sep 9, 2014
Originally published on September 9, 2014 10:53 am

For ballerina Misty Copeland, the role of the Firebird is a personally symbolic one. "It was one of the first really big principal roles I was ever given an opportunity to dance with American Ballet Theatre," she tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "It was a huge step for the African-American community."

And she believes it's just one step in the larger direction that ballet is going. In her new children's book, Firebird, Copeland seeks to inspire other young African-American dancers. In a ballet company attempting to create an experience of uniformity, she says, "It's hard to be the one that stands out."

The book is dedicated to her mentor Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American ballerina to tour the country.


Interview Highlights

On how Wilkinson was treated when she was touring in the 1950s

She was pretty much chased out when they were touring the South by the KKK, who were threatening that she couldn't perform in their theaters or stay in the hotels. ... And they were trying to kind of hide her and have her blend in and not notice that she was a dancer of color. She experienced a lot more severe, life-threatening racism than other minorities experienced in the ballet world at this point.

On expectations about body type

I don't think every African-American or Latino have the same body type, but, yes, that's been one of the excuses ... saying that African-Americans are too muscular or just aren't lean enough. Usually they say, "Oh, they have flat feet so they just don't have the flexibility that it takes to create the line in a point shoe."

When people meet me in person, they're usually surprised at how petite I am because there's just [an] idea that because I'm black I just look a certain way. ...

They hear those words from critics — I'm "too bulky," I'm "too busty" — and then they meet me in person and they say, "You look like a ballerina, I don't understand." And I think it's just something maybe I will never escape from: those people who are narrow-minded. But my mission, my voice, my story, my message is not for them. I think it's more important to think of the people I am influencing and helping to see a broader picture of what beauty is.

On the optimistic tone of the book, telling young dancers they will succeed

I think that especially young kids need to hear those words, because I think that if you say "maybe" or "it's possible," I think it's very easy for them to interpret that as "no, it's not." There are so many opportunities beyond these top companies that they can be a part of the ballet world in some way, and so I think its necessary for them to hear that. ...

I've seen it happen with these girls that come to me, and some of them are really broken because they've been told "no" so many times. They're making it happen for themselves. There's a young girl I've known since she was maybe 3 years old — mixed-race like I am, half black and half white — and when I met her she was considering going into a contemporary modern company, and now she dances with Dance Theatre of Harlem. That's a path that I don't know if she considered, but she's performing classical ballets and she couldn't be happier.

On being in ballet at age 31

The higher you go up in rank, usually the longer you can dance. ... I absolutely love what I do, and I want to dance for as long as I can and feel good about what I am putting out there on the stage. ... My goal has always been to be a principal dancer with ABT.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The dancer Misty Copeland appeared recently in a commercial.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It was an ad for Under Armour. And it was one of those commercials that delivered a gut-punch of a message.

INSKEEP: What you see is Copeland dancing beautifully on screen.

GREENE: What you hear is the voice of a girl reading a rejection letter she's just received from a ballet school.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNDER ARMOUR COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Dear candidate, thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately, you have not been accepted. You lack the right feet, Achilles tendons, turnout, torso length and bust. You have the wrong body for ballet, and at 13, you are too old to be considered.

INSKEEP: Ouch. It's widely believed the ballet world has tended to promote a certain type of dancer. Misty Copeland is different, she says not so much in body type, but in race. She is an African-American dancer in a mostly white world. She is a member of the American Ballet Theatre, or ABT. And she has now written a children's book, partly inspired by her experience, called "Firebird."

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLET, "THE FIREBIRD")

INSKEEP: We're hearing music from a famous ballet called "The Firebird," which is where Copeland got the name of the book.

MISTY COPELAND: "The Firebird" just symbolizes a lot for me in my career. It was one of the first really big principal roles that I was ever given an opportunity to dance with American Ballet Theater. And it was a huge step for the African-American community, I think, within the classical ballet world. And for them to come out and support me in the way that they did, coming to the Metropolitan Opera House to see me perform that role, I think this is the step in the change and direction that ballet is going.

INSKEEP: Misty Copeland dedicated "Firebird" to her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American ballerina to tour the country. In the 1950s, that was no small feat.

COPELAND: She was pretty much chased out when they were touring the South by the KKK, who were threatening that she couldn't perform in their theaters or stay in the hotels that the other dancers were with. And they were trying to kind of hide her and have her blend in and not notice that she was a dancer of color. So she experienced a lot more severe, life-threatening racism than other minorities experience in the ballet world at this point.

INSKEEP: Overt racism aside, has ballet been a particularly difficult field for African-American women to break into?

COPELAND: Yes. And I think that the reason is the racism and not wanting to change this very traditional art form that has been, you know, successful in the way it is for so long. And it's hard to be the one that stands out when, you know, in a ballet company, you're trying to create unison and uniform when you're in a quarta ballet.

INSKEEP: Oh, and that is the way that you dance, and it also may be the body type that you have?

COPELAND: Yeah, I mean, I think that that goes along with just kind of being close-minded because I don't think every African-American or Latino or, you know, have the same body type. But...

INSKEEP: Sure.

COPELAND: But yes, that's been one of the excuses, I think, saying that, you know, African-Americans are too muscular or just aren't lean enough. And usually they say, oh, they have flat feet so they don't have the flexibility that it takes to create the line in a pointe shoe. When people meet me in person, they're usually surprised at how petite I am because there's this idea that because I'm black, I just look a certain way.

INSKEEP: What, that you should be big and muscular or something?

COPELAND: Yeah, but some people even think that I'm still just not right for it. And I think it's shocking because they hear those words from critics saying I'm too bulky, I'm too busty. And then they meet me in person, and they're like, you look like a ballerina. I don't understand. And I think it's just something maybe that I will never escape from those people who are narrow-minded. But my mission, my voice, my story, my message is not for them. And I think it's more important to think of the people that I am influencing and helping to see a broader picture of what beauty is.

INSKEEP: That leads to something I wondered about reading this book. It's a very optimistic book. You're talking to a young woman, a girl, and she's saying I can never do what you do. And you're saying, yes, you can. And in fact, you go on to say more than, yes, you can. You say that you will. You will succeed.

COPELAND: Yes.

INSKEEP: Did you hesitate before putting down on the page such a voice of certainty?

COPELAND: No (laughter). I think that especially young kids need to hear those words because I think that if you say, you know, maybe or it's possible, I think it's very easy to interpret that as, no, it's not. There are so many opportunities beyond these top companies that they can be a part of the ballet world in some way. And so I think it's necessary for them to hear that.

INSKEEP: So you weren't just thinking metaphorically, well, in some way in life you will dance and soar. You are actually saying, you will do this if you're determined to do it?

COPELAND: Exactly, you will. I've seen it happen with these girls that come to me. And some of them are really broken because they've been told no so many times, and they're making it happen for themselves. There's a young girl that I'd known since she was maybe 3 years old, mixed-race like I am, half-black and half-white. And when I met her, she just - she was considering going into a contemporary and modern company, and now she dances with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. And that's a path that I don't know if she considered. But she's performing classical ballets, and she couldn't be happier.

INSKEEP: Now, you are in your early 30s now, right?

COPELAND: I'm 31, yes.

INSKEEP: You're 31 years old, which is getting rather late in the career for a ballet dancer, is it not?

COPELAND: Somewhat, depending on the level you're in your company. The higher you go up in rank, usually the longer you can dance.

INSKEEP: So do you have aspirations to break another barrier and, you know, be there for another decade or whatever you might be able to manage?

COPELAND: That's the plan.

INSKEEP: Is it really?

COPELAND: I absolutely love what I do. And I want to dance for as long as I can and feel good about what I'm putting out there on the stage. But my goal has always been to be a principal dancer with ABT. Before I knew that there had never been a black woman, that was always my goal. I wanted to dance Odette-Odile and Kitri and "Don Quixote" and Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty." So that's still my goal. But knowing that it's never been done before, I think makes me fight even harder.

INSKEEP: Misty Copeland is author of "Firebird," a children's book. Thanks very much.

COPELAND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLET, "THE FIREBIRD")

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

GREENE: And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.