Esther Cepeda: A black ballerina’s lonely rise
CHICAGO -- Ballet lovers often read about the lives of their favorite ballerinas for gory details about the agonizing pain of dancing on their toes. The aching tendons, the endless blisters, the blackened toenails, even the inevitably pin-pricked fingers resulting from hours of sewing elastics and ribbons onto an endless procession of slippers and toe shoes.
We’re not masochists, we simply like to fantasize—or reminisce—about the experience of becoming as light as a feather on rock-hard shoes that are as coarse and unyielding as they are beautiful and iconic.
You’ll get none of this in “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” the autobiography of Misty Copeland, an African-American soloist with American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Called a ballet prodigy, Copeland started her formal training at the advanced age of 13, in worn gym clothes at an after-school dance class sponsored by her local Boys & Girls Club of America in Los Angeles.
Yet only a few months later, she was painlessly up en pointe, twirling like someone who’d been training for the nine years it usually takes to graduate from slippers to boxed ballet shoes. No physical struggle against gravity for Copeland, just effortless, beautiful form.
Instead of the standard woes about eating disorders or failure to be promoted, the aching details in Copeland’s behind-the-curtain story are of a different sort. She provides harrowing glimpses into a life of overcoming poverty and instability to claim a spot at the highest levels of an art form in which you cannot progress without demonstrating ability, only to be seen by some as an affirmative-action beneficiary.
Despite Copeland’s well-documented talent, she arrived at ABT and somehow became, as she described it, as a token brown girl, someone who must have played a race card to gain entrance and, yes, someone who initially had to be painted white by the company’s makeup artists so she could “fit in” with the rest of the corps de ballet on stage.
Copeland’s travails came as a shock to me. I tend to think the best of people and especially imagine liberal artists as open-minded enough to have shed simplistic biases long before arriving at the pinnacle of their professions.
Despite having grown up in the 1980s, when wildly successful multiracial Benetton ads provided young people a taste of post-racialism and half a century since black dancers had broken into the world of classical ballet—though in very small numbers—Copeland suffered subtle and overt forms of bias.
One of her worst times at ABT occurred in 2007 after The New York Times published a damning story about the paucity of black ballerinas. She hadn’t been prepared for her peers’ reactions.
“Walking to my first rehearsal, a young woman in the company who was a friend of mine rushed toward me,” Copeland writes. “‘Did you see that stupid article in the Times, “Where Are All the Black Swans?”’ she asked me in a tone that was more accusatory than curious. ‘What are they talking about? What a dumb story.’ I couldn’t speak. I felt dismissed, and even more alone. Was she truly so clueless? If she, a friend, didn’t understand my struggles, who else would?”
Copeland never let her isolation—nor the meanness from those jealous of her status in the company or enmity from those who simply believe that only whites belong in ballet—slow her down as she worked toward becoming the star she always knew she could be.
In some ways the hostility—from ballet bloggers, dance critics and the types of grand patrons who’d rather see the art form go extinct than see it be universalized and made accessible to the poor—fueled Copeland.
I’m spoiling the fairy-tale ending of the book, but when Copeland finally performs on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House as the Firebird in Stravinsky’s seminal masterpiece of the same name, Copeland retells the experience interspersed with heaping doses of the mantra she repeats throughout the book, “This is for the little brown girls.”
Copeland sells herself too short.
Ensuring that boys and girls of all races and ethnicities pursue ballet and eventually take center stage in our country’s most prestigious dance companies is the very thing that will draw younger, more diverse audiences to the art, allowing ballet to thrive for years to come.
Keep on dancing, Misty, your trailblazing is a gift to all balletomanes, not just the brown ones.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.