Misty Copeland is the most famous working dancer today. Due to the Internet and social media, some may argue that she is, or will soon become, one of the most well-known dancers of all time. Her muscle tone and her physique have broken the mold of what people imagine a ballerina to look like. She is one of the few ballerinas ever to cross over to Broadway, debuting in the recent revival of On the Town with one rehearsal with the full cast before going on. She has been on the cover of Time as one of America’s top 100 influential people. All of this might lead one to think that Misty is the most talented dancer of all time. Yet few people in the dance world would say that. She is incredibly talented, but the most talented dancer of all time? Well, if she isn’t…why is she so famous?
Misty is so famous because she is an African American who has risen to great heights in the dance world and that in itself is very uncommon. She is not the first such African American ballerina, but her celebrity comes at a time when technology is making the dance world smaller and smaller, even as her personal story grows and grows. She has used her notoriety to help build some wonderful programs and to push for causes in the dance world and beyond that are very important, too. American Ballet Theatre’s “Project Plié,” for which Misty is the spokesperson, is a fantastic example. It is a partnership with The Boys and Girls Club of America to teach ballet on site and to offer scholarships to professional schools. The idea behind this is that it will begin to help deal with the very real problem of racism in dance. We at Oklahoma City Ballet are a partner in this program.
The problem with Misty’s fame, however, is precisely it’s relationship to her ethnicity; she should be known as an incredible dancer who is a principal at American Ballet Theatre, not as an incredible dancer who is the first African American to be named a principal at American Ballet Theatre. To see her as an African American first is, in fact, benevolent prejudice — to congratulate someone for doing something that most people of her race have not done. But to do so only reminds us that it is not the norm. If we are ever to get to a point at which the best dancers get the best roles regardless of factors like race, then race really needs to recede, perhaps completely, from the discussion. Whether its positive or negative, the singling out of someone based on their color is only perpetuating the mindset that color makes us different.
This is nothing against Misty personally; she’s a wonderful person and, as I’ve said, unquestionably an exquisite dancer. Her book, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, is helping to inspire many young girls who did not see ballet as an option to dream now of pointe shoes and tutus. But ultimately, if those girls are going to grow up and have a fair shot at being a professional dancer, then Misty’s story, her success, actually needs to be less and less unique.
The post-Charleston shooting controversy surrounding the flying or not-flying of the Confederate Flag proved that we are not nearly as developed as a nation in terms of equality as we dared to think we are. If anything, race lines in America are becoming more clear, not less. There are notable arts critics (that I cannot mention) who have said that African Americans do not have the right body type for ballet. Such blind ignorance will keep us mired in archaic, racist views until we call them what they are and discuss them. To think that the problem will fix itself over time is akin to thinking that if you don’t change your diet and exercise regimen, you will lose weight. It isn’t going to happen.