Women of Color in Ballet

The ballet world and beyond has been dazzled by Misty Copeland’s rise to fame—from the cover of dance magazines to a giant ad in my local Dick’s Sporting Goods, her face is everywhere.

Misty Copeland in one of her ads for Under Armour---simultaneously inspiring young dancers of color and reminding us what a strenuous sport ballet truly is.

Misty Copeland in one of her ads for Under Armour—simultaneously inspiring young dancers of color and reminding us what a strenuous sport ballet truly is.

I’m a former ballerina, and I was one of the only minorities in a studio that was predominantly, overwhelmingly, white. Ballet, as a cultural sphere, is particularly exclusionary in a way that is both obvious (the high price of this “hobby”) and hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s the subtle, often insidious atmosphere of a discipline that prizes certain bodies and certain aesthetics above all others. In a medium so focused on the visual body, the importance of seeing role models who look like you cannot be overstated. Small wonder, then, that seeing Misty Copeland as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake has lit a fire in young ballerinas of color everywhere. Misty’s success is a vivid reminder of black excellence in a field that hasn’t quite been welcoming to women of color.

Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack in Swan Lake | Photo from the New York Times

Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack in Swan Lake | Photo from the New York Times

But she’s not the only one. As Theresa Ruth Howard argues in her piece “The Misty-Rious Case of the Vanishing Ballerinas of Color: Where Have All the Others Gone?“, an overwhelming focus on Misty as “the first one,” “the only one,” the “ultimate” trailblazer actually erases and diminishes the many dancers who helped shape the path that Misty now dances. To elevate Misty and forget her predecessors (and peers) would be to commit the fallacy of the “only one”—the flawed assumption that, for women of color and black women in particular, there can only be one in the top spot. It’s time for classical ballet, an art form with diminishing mainstream cultural resonance, to open itself wider to the passionate dancers of all backgrounds waiting in its wings.

Ballet is an especially interesting cultural arena because of the conversations surrounding black women’s bodies. Black women, like most groups of women of color in the history of the United States, have been both oversexualized and instrumentalized. Mainstream pop culture’s appropriation of black dancing (see: twerking) while simultaneously denigrating the same black women who originated this facet of culture—that’s a telling example of the double standard to which black women’s bodies are held, isnt it? Ballet, despite its claim to artistic purity that rises above politics, is not immune to this. It is an art form about looking at bodies on display, about profiting from the bodies of girls who work themselves sometimes to exhaustion. But it is also about beauty and joy and the sweetness of struggle. These are not irreconciliable. As ballerinas of color take to the stage, they inevitably participate in a cultural sphere that does not always respect or value them—but they also work to carve out a space for themselves and for the craft they love. That is beauty.

This gallery pays tribute to Misty and her fellow ballerinas of color: those who shone so brightly on stages all over the world and inspired the next generation of dancers. For a fuller list of black ballet dancers, please visit Roll Call.

This extremely brief introduction is by no means an exhaustive list (not even close!) I have intentionally focused on black ballerinas because in the fraught racial history of the United States, black ballerinas have been forced to overcome more explicit color barriers than most other groups. This is not to diminish the achievements of other women of color—another post about them is forthcoming! If you have suggestions, please share your favorite ballerinas and dancers of color, trailblazers all, in the comments. 

And the future? It might look like rising star Michaela DePrince, one of the subjects of the ballet documentary First Position. She is now dancing in the company of the Dutch National Ballet. Here she is at the young age of 14, competing in the Grand Prix. Check out her TED Talk too!


There is one comment

  1. balletandboxing

    Reblogged this on Discovering ratchet and commented:
    Go Misty Go! Misty Copeland is gaining widespread cultural fame after being the fist black ballerina to be named a Principal Dancer at the ABT American Ballet Theatre – one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the USA, if not the world.

    Funnily enough, I first discovered Misty Copeland after Cap, from my boxing gym, told me about her, having seen her in one of her Under Armour campaigns. He spoke enthusiastically about her powerful, athletic body, and her great attitude. Score 1 for Under Armour and Misty, that campaign was clearly a great success!


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