When Misty Copeland was named principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre this week, her achievement was noted because she is the First African-American Woman to hold this position. Of course she was already known in the ballet world as she worked her way up to this recognition, but her fame has extended beyond the sphere of classical dance.
Misty Copeland did not begin dancing until she was a young teenager. In spite of being told that it was too late for her to become a ballerina, she trained and progressed rapidly. She was en pointe within a few months and within two years she placed first in the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards. That award provided offers from the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theater of Harlem and Pacific Northwest Ballet for places in their summer workshops. She selected San Francisco Ballet, but would later study in the Summer Intensive Program at American Ballet Theatre. ABT then offered her (and five others out of 150) a place in their junior dance troupe.
In the last decade Misty Copeland has been visible internationally and in mass media. In 2009 she appeared in a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. The ABT engagement was the first by an American ballet company at the new Chinese arts center. In 2011 Misty was selected as one of 37 Boundary-breaking black women in entertainment by Essence magazine. By 2015 she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People (in the world). She was also profiled within the last year on “60 Minutes.”
She has brought new audience members to ballet, perhaps because she dances across the gaps between classical and popular tastes. The same year she danced in Beijing, she danced on a piano top for a Prince video. Although she idolized the Argentine principal ballerina Paloma Herrera after seeing her dance, she did not abandon her earlier admiration for the music of Mariah Carey.
Her influence might be likened to Brandi Chastain. Not many people paid attention to women’s soccer until the 1999 World Cup. Few forget the moment after USA won the cup and Brandi Chastain removed her shirt as if saying, “Here I am world. This is the power of a woman’s body.” Misty Underwood conveyed the same message last year when she danced in her Under Armour for a commercial as part of their “I Will What I Want” campaign. The ad had four million views within one week.
During the ad a young girl reads the rejection letter received by Misty Copeland when she started dancing. We can admire the strong body she developed but also the persistence that marks her character. She provides inspiration to women of all ages.