By Srijan Sen
Ballet is one of those art forms dancers consider elite, and, like most elite positions, the number of non-white dancers is few and far between.
Earlier this month, a historic barrier was broken when Misty Copeland became the first African- American woman to serve as principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre.
Copeland, 32, is considered a child prodigy who, despite a late start at the age of 13, rose to stardom. Last week, she announced her role in the Broadway musical “On The Town” for two weeks starting August 25.
The journey for the accomplished ballerina was a tougher path than most can conceive.
In an interview with New York Daily, Artistic Director of the famed Dance Theatre of Harlem, Virginia Johnson said that while white ballerinas have a less than 5% chance of working at a top ballet company, for ballerinas of color the chances are far slimmer.
The reasons of culture and socio-economic divide that keep children of diverse backgrounds from being immersed in this particular art form also affected Copeland’s early life dramatically.
She shared some of her struggles during childhood in an intimate interview with Elle.
Born in Kansas City, Copeland’s parents separated when she was two-years-old.
An ex-NFL cheerleader, her mother went through multiple relationships taking the kids to the Los Angeles suburb of San Pedro where the family eventually settled.
When she was 13, Copeland recalled a time when the family slept in a motel room with she and her siblings crowded on the floor.
“It was the hardest time,” said Copeland in the interview. “I was always anxious.”
She began focusing all her energy in school where she also began practicing ballet.
Impressed by her athletic ability, the local gym teacher recommended Copeland to the San Pedro Ballet School.
Ballet schools are rarely found nearly predominantly black or brown neighborhoods, forcing kids and parents to travel long distances to a place where they may not be necessarily welcome.
This is why Misty Copeland is so important, says Rachel Moore, CEO of the American Ballet Theatre in an interview with NY Daily.
With the release of her memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina” and a recent promotion as principle dancer at one of the three classical ballet company’s in the nation, Copeland is having a Beyoncé moment, noted Sarah Kaufman in the Washington Post.
Copeland is not the first ballerina to push the boundaries.
Several other prominent black ballerinas have also made their mark in recent years, including Jasmine Perry with the Los Angeles Ballet, Nicole Zadra with Hong Kong Ballet and Queens native Olivia Boisson with the New York City Ballet.
However, their collective achievement is an exception.
The drama in the backstory of artists always captures audience imaginations.
For all the attention on the story thus far, little focus has been paid to her actual performance as a ballerina.
Kaufman writes that no ballet dancer has been able to transcend their field and become a household name for more than 40 years.
The struggle for Copeland is now to maneuver through the sea of media coverage and keep focusing on the art.
“If we’re in America, our ballet companies should look like America and they don’t right now,” said Moore.
“It’s imperative to diversify the company.”