Misty Copeland – Principal Dancer

MISTY COPELANDWhen 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.

Maya Angelou – Renaissance Woman

           A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. [Maya Angelou] 

Maya Angelou was the first African-American woman to. . .

–work as a cable car conductor in San Francisco

–have a nonfiction best-seller; her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings set a record at The New York Times, remaining on the best-seller list for two years.

–have her screenplay produced; Georgia, Georgia was nominated for a Pulitzer.

–direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 3.21.47 PMThe most common description of Maya Angelou is “Renaissance woman.” Often this term is misused, meaning a person who has broad interests. The correct usage is for a person who has extended knowledge or proficiency in a number of fields, and Maya Angelou could be a poster child for the word. One need only consider the professions, endeavors, and awards of her life to see how well she fits the definition.

Her Professions when Young: Cable car conductor, waitress, cook, night-club dancer and performer, professional dancer with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey

Her Experience as a Civil Rights Worker: helped Malcolm X build Organization of African American Union and, at Dr. Martin Luther King’s invitation, was Northern Coordinator for the Southern Leadership Conference

Her Artistic Endeavors: Off-Broadway actress, musician (wrote score for her film Georgia, Georgia), actress in television and movies, feature film director, producer of plays, movies and public television programs

Her Literary Accomplishments: editor of English language weekly (in Ghana), feature editor, The African Review, non-fiction author (seven autobiographies, three books of essays), creative writer (plays, movies, television shows), Poet

Her Role of Educator: Teacher, University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University

Her Honors and awards include over 50 honorary degrees, the Presidential Medal of Arts, the Lincoln Medal, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die, two Tony Award nominations, for her role in the play Look Away and another for her role in the play Roots. She received three Grammy awards for spoken word and read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the inauguration of President Clinton

The word “renaissance” means re-birth and Dr. Angelou has been re-born throughout her life. In turn, she has used her work to inspire others so that we also might be re-born through the magic of her lyricism and the import of her message.


Read the biography on her official website: http://mayaangelou.com

Read the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/i-know-why-the-caged-bird-sings/

Locate her books: http://mayaangelou.com/books/; her films: http://mayaangelou.com/films/; and some of her photographs and media work: http://mayaangelou.com/media/

Kathryn Bigelow – Academy Award for Directing

“I think all wars are a tragedy, and to critique it, you have to look at it. . .to examine and experience the futility of war, to engage in that subject and treat it as a raw, primal, experiential observation.” [Kathryn Bigelow]

OSCAR_2Kathryn Bigelow is a visual artist and her vision was recognized with an Academy Award for directing in 2010. She was The First Woman To receive this honor. Her artistic career began when she studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. One of her professors, without consulting her, sent slides of her work to the prestigious Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum. She moved to New York, lived in a former bank vault three stories below ground, and became friends with the artistic crowd in the city. She and Philip Glass renovated apartments while she created art.

It was none other than Andy Warhol who made her aware that art reached only a limited number of people and that, to have a social impact, one needed a more popular medium. After considering this perspective, she made a short film and submitted it to Columbia University’s film school. Milos Forman, director of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was a professor there and offered her a scholarship.

Her films, from the beginning, explored violence and even with her latest film,  Zero Dark Thirty, she was criticized for her explicit exploration of the inhumane ways in which we treat one another. She has, through the years, however, been commended for the action in her films and her visual aesthetic. She continues to paint pictures, but now she uses the camera instead of a paintbrush.

Kathryn Bigelow has worked in movies and television. While directing a crime series, The Inside, for television, she worked with Mark Boal, a journalist on whose work the story was based. Their next collaboration was on The Hurt Locker, partially based on Boal’s experiences covering the Iraq War. The picture won numerous awards, including Movie of the Year from AFI, Best Picture and Director from BAFTA, and Best Picture and Director from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the coveted Oscar.

Kathryn Bigelow was on the cover of Time magazine, but it was not for being The First Woman To receive an academy award for directing. It was two years later, after her movie Zero Dark Thirty generated controversy for its depiction of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Kathryn Bigelow’s reaction to the criticism is that her intent was to “show us what people do, and not necessarily what they think or feel, or what the viewer should think or feel about them. . .”


Read an interview from Time magazine:

Cover Story: Kathryn Bigelow’s Art of Darkness

To a list of her films: http://www.fandango.com/kathrynbigelow/filmography/p81836

From a New Yorker interview: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2012/12/17/121217ta_talk_filkins


Was the Academy persuaded to award the Oscar to Kathryn Bieglow because the subject matter of her film was more male than female?

Toni Morrison – Nobel Laureate in Literature

                                         How does one write about Toni Morrison using ordinary words?

TONI MORRISON      Toni Morrison has won nearly every book prize awarded and in 2006 The New York Times Book Review named her novel Beloved, the best novel in the previous 25 years. She is a renowned author but also an influential teacher.

Morrison credits her parents, a welder and domestic worker, for instilling in her a love of reading and music. She knew the classics by reading great works of European literature and studying Latin when she was young. Her favorite authors were Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Flaubert and Austen, but her aspiration was to become a ballerina like her idol, Maria Tallchief. She graduated from high school, in an integrated neighborhood, with honors.

At Howard University she joined a repertory company and toured the South, seeing for the first time the life of others with the same skin color as her own. She graduated with a degree in English and a minor in classics. At Cornell she wrote her Master’s thesis on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.

After completing her education she taught English at Texas Southern University and later returned to her alma mater, Howard. There she joined a writer’s group on campus and began her first novel.

When she became a single mother, she moved with her sons to Syracuse, New York and worked as an editor for Random House. She edited books by Muhammad Ali, Andrew Young, and Angela Davis and later moved to New York as associate editor.

Her first novel, Bluest Eye, was not a big seller but her next book, Sula, was nominated for the American Book Award. Song of Solomon, which followed, was a featured selection in the Book-of-the Month Club. In the early 1980’s she was appointed to the National Council on the Arts, became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine. In the late 1980’s she was given a chair in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University, the first black woman to hold a named chair at an Ivy League University.

She was already well known, but it was her novel Beloved that skyrocketed her into another fame’s rare atmosphere. The novel earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Five years later she received a Nobel Prize for Literature, once again the first black woman to break a barrier.

As an author she wrote novels and children’s books. She explored the play format and wrote lyrics for “Four Songs” in collaboration with composer André Previn. She also wrote lyrics for composer Richard Danielpour and a libretto for the American opera Margaret Garner. She has written non-fiction and won a Grammy for a spoken word album.

As a teacher, she established the Princeton Atelier, a workshop for writers and performers, and only retired from her professorship at Princeton in the last decade. She also teaches by editing the work of other writers.

One of her passions is protecting art from censorship. Her fervor, as well as her poetic language, is evident in her views on this topic:

“The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered    or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.”


Toni Morrison Society: http://www.tonimorrisonsociety.org/society.html

Written biography and video: http://www.biography.com/people/toni-morrison-9415590?page=1

There are a number of biographies about Toni Morrison. Danielle K. Taylor-Guthrie has also written Conversations with Toni Morrison.

You can also view the film Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover


Were there teachers in your life who inspired you to pursue your goals?