By Tod Roulette
My ten-year-old goddaughter Lucy is all legs and arms. She sat on my lap at the Upper East Side Barnes and Noble on 86th Street this week waiting to see thirty-one-year old African-American prima ballerina Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theater. Lucy has taken ballet lessons since the age of six. She and her mother invited me to hear Copeland read from her new memoir. Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Touchstone Publishers, an imprint of Simon and Schuster) tells the story of her indomitable rise from poverty in San Pedro, California to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
The evening’s event began with Misty Copeland entering the room as eager young eyes followed her movement to the platform. Some welled up with tears as their lithe gorgeous café au lait heroine took her seat. Coming from a previous interview, she wore a blue lace top, jeans, and taupe four-inch leather pumps. Simply elegant, she wore her hair pulled tight atop her head. Chloe Malle, Social Editor of Vogue Magazine, joined her to ask Copeland about auditioning as the only ballerina of color with 80 others for the American Ballet Theater. They also discussed the memoir’s most sensational portion. Coaxed by her teacher and mentor Cindy Bradley (with whom Copeland briefly lived), Copeland emancipated herself legally at age 17. Her mother, divorced many times, could not financially support her six children, so Copeland knew much of instability and food insecurity in her young life. But, her art kept her grounded. Copeland stated March 11 during Women’s History Month that she knew she had a gift and was unwavering in her goal of dancing on a major stage.
As girls of color of every age asked how she kept her focus during the Q& A , Copeland continued to insist that all other ‘noise’ had to be shut out. As she auditioned and felt anything nearing insecurity arising in her, she steadily concentrated on her craft. She also read books to learn about the history of African-Americans in dance. Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful by Susan Fales-Hill recalls the life of Josephine Premice, a Haitian born dancer and actress nominated for a Tony Award for her work in the 1957 musical Jamaica with leading lady Lena Horne. Copeland also lauded the dancers Raven Wilkinson, Paloma Herrera, and Gelsey Kirkland. Copeland told her audience that she feels honored and heartened to have Wilkinson as a friend. In 1955 Wilkinson was the first African-American to receive a contract to dance full time with a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Chloe Malle cited Copeland’s recollection in her memoir of waiting for makeup before dancing in Puss and Boots. As the makeup artist reached for white makeup, the prima ballerina assertively and quite innocently asked why she could not be a brown cat. Copeland affirms repeatedly throughout her memoir, “This is for the little brown girls.”
Despite the triumphant underdog overture of Life in Motion, some ballet circles consider the book controversial and assess Copeland as a disingenuous opportunist. The Haglund Heel blog accuses, “When Misty was first promoted to the rank of soloist, she boasted to the media that she was the first black female soloist at American Ballet Theatre. She told Jim Farber of the LA Daily News: ‘They’ve never had a black woman make it past the corps.’ When Farber spoke to Kevin McKenzie for the same article, McKenzie didn’t correct the misinformation that Misty was promoting. He didn’t mention any of the black women soloists who reportedly came before Misty and helped to open the door for her: Anne Benna Sims, Nora Kimball, or Shelley Washington. Misty writes about getting her first soloist contract: ‘If this could open doors for black women in ballet, that would mean the world to me,’ but she pays no homage to the ABT black soloists who came before her and helped open doors for her.”
The scarcity of black female principal dancers and dancers comprising the corps of classical ballet troupes throughout the U.S. speaks for itself. The UK’s dearth of female dancers of color speaks just as loudly. According to the Huffington Post, of the 64 dancers in the English National Ballet corps in 2012, only two were black. In the same year, Copeland became the first African-American to play Firebird.
During Copeland’s Barnes and Noble appearance, audience members raised their hands to state they saw Copeland dance in a Dr. Pepper commercial in which she reveals that her training began at a Boys and Girls Club. Others in the audience added that they saw her dance on the Lopez Tonight show with Prince. Copeland has sought to expose more of the general public to ballet as an accessible art form. She promotes Project Plie, which seeks to identify and support young ballerinas of color at ABT. Its advisory committee includes Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; Nigel Lythgoe, the executive producer of “So You Think You Can Dance”; and Frank Sanchez, Vice President, Sports, Entertainment, and Alumni Development of the Boys and Girls Club.
Responding to a question regarding the duration of her dancing in a career with a short span, Copeland declared ten years. More power to her and her drive to increase awareness of classical ballet among youth of color, both boys and girls. As a result of Copeland’s influence, perhaps makeup artists will not reflexively reach for my goddaughter Lucy’s face and nude tights will not contain a hue much too light for her skin. Despite the controversy surrounding Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Copeland has soared as Firebird and inspired young girls like my goddaughter to shut out the noise and concentrate on the craft of dance. Copeland, prima ballerina of color, brings the issue of represent and visibility to the forefront for the 21st century.
Excerpt from Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina:
“We were coming undone. We kids were still a unified tribe. But the distance between us and Mommy continued to grow.
This time we moved into a motel. It was called the Sunset Inn, two stories of stucco just off a busy highway. We were now in Gardena, a town right next to San Pedro. We were closer to our old neighborhood, but this place, this part of town, didn’t feel like home.
Our room was toward the back of the top story. We children slept on the couch and the floor in the large front room, but I would often disappear into Mommy’s bedroom after school, trying to drift away in a dream or a dance.
I tried to make the best of it. I would pretend the hallway was a veranda and I’d sit there, soaking up the sun. And I turned the rail into my very own barre, which I would grab hold of to balance as I stretched toward the sky.
Often we had no money at all. We would run our hands around the couch cushions and through the carpet to find change. Then we’d go to the corner to see if we could afford something to eat. Eventually, Mommy applied for food stamps.
There were many people who seemed not to want to see black ballerinas, who thought that our very presence made ballet less authentic, less romantic, less true.
The bitter truth is I felt that I wasn’t being fully accepted because I was black, that leaders of the company just didn’t see me starring in more classical roles, despite my elegant line and flow.
I wanted to run away from the ABT.
This May at Metropolitan Opera House you can send Ms. Copeland in the starring role of Coppelia in “Swanhilda” and this year a documentary about the young phenomenal talent of the author is to be premiered. It is being produced by noted author, critic and filmmaker Nelson George. He has written such books as Buppies, B-boys, Baps, And Bohos: Notes On Post-soul Black Culture, Post-soul Nation and “The N-Word”, “The Announcement” and “Strictly Business”
Tod Roulette is an Arts and Culture writer for Harlem World Magazine, his first book titled, “Rowing Not Drifting – Bryant Women in Kansas, 1795-1908: The Expansion of the West and the Participation by Women of Color,” will be published this 2014 by Mammoth Publications