Misty Copeland on Being Ballerina, Black and “Curvy.”

In an interview with BlackVoices, Misty Copeland, aka the first black American ballet soloist at the American Ballet Theatre, talks candidly about how being fair-skinned may have given her an edge over other black American dancers with “perfect physiques”:

I’ve seen so many talented black women who come in with the perfect physique and still not get into this company or another one. I think it’s probably about timing as well but it definitely may have been because they were too dark. I think I was lucky to get in when I did and maybe they felt that position was filled.

A young black girl came into the company, and she’s fair-skinned like me. We have yet to see a dark-skinned woman come into the company. It’s a very touchy subject in general.

Copeland said it wasn’t until she reached her mid-twenties when stopped being uncomfortable with her 5’2 inch/102 pound frame. Those insecurities she attributes to the everyday pressures of being a woman, and a ballet dancer (an art form with criteria not too different from being a model that rests primarily on thinness and white European aesthetics).

In her own words:

…being a woman in general it’s hard to be completely comfortable and confident with how you look. Especially in an art form like this when it is about your physicality and what you look like. It’s difficult being critiqued and judged on that basis.

I had a breakthrough with accepting my body. I surrounded myself with other women who looked like me and who were successful – other successful black women. Even though they weren’t in my field, having that motivation helped me to come to terms and accept myself.

Although Copeland has taken turns flirting with the pop spotlight alongside the likes of Prince she has decided to keep her focus on becoming the first black American principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre.

Copeland’s choice to remain in the professional ballet circuit for the long haul but periodically using MSM as a means to expose her self to the general public is commendable. For those who may not otherwise see black women in pointe shoes–whether it’s because movie tickets for films about Black Swans only offer all-white casts or tickets to see Copeland perform are too costly–music videos like Crimson and Clover that showcase this talented ballerina may inspire younger generations of black women to refrain from nixing out ballet as a viable option for their dancing careers.

Even at dance schools that are predominantly black there are dance tropes that relegate black dancers, especially those who are also curvy, to steer clear from ballet. At the Ailey School, the teachers personal experiences of being shut out from the professional ballet circuit often were relayed to the students through bits of advice they offered. Pursuing ballet was just not encouraged although the program required us to slip into ballet slippers seven times a week. I had one ballet teacher advised me during a end-of-the-year evaluation to “Be a Rocket, go into contemporary modern dance you’ll be great…but you cannot be a ballerina.”

“Some black women give up and don’t do classical ballet dance” said Copeland in the BV interview “I want them to know that times are changing. The more people we have auditioning, they can’t deny talent.”

Now that’s advice worth pollinating.


Naima "Nai" Ramos-Chapman is the Associate Editor at Campus Progress, a dancer with Taurus Broadhurst Dance in D.C., and an aspiring visual artist (she doodles). Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Naimaramchap.
  • TH

    Great post! It should be noted that Misty Copeland is the first PROMINENT black ballerina with ABT but she did have two predecessors. It’s important to remember those that paved the way for Misty just as it’s important to understand Misty is paving the way for others.

  • What a wonderful story. I’ll be sharing with my budding ballerina.

  • grace

    I was long, skinny and Grace Jones black. I got all the solos in the ballet recitals; in my local ballet school annual that is; was always chosen to demonstrate in class. But when Joffrey came calling (we kind of fed the company) they always picked my less talented white classmates. I still love ballet.

  • Ulysses, Not yet home

    Uhh, for the record, 5’2″ and 102 lbs is nowhere on the planet of “Curvy”. The scenes of her in the studio show her to be a lithe, muscular, athlete. One might classify her as “normal” in that she does not appear, to be gaunt, or disproportionately underweight, but it is a disservice to women to identify this supremely conditioned physical performer with clearly less than 5% body fat as curvy.

    • At the risk of turning this into an ogle-fest, I don’t think that’s a huge mischaracterization.


      She’s not exactly a stick.

    • April

      I believe you’re mixing up “curvy” and “plus-sized.” You can be both petite and curvy, as Misty Copeland is.

      • Kelly

        I think the problem is that plus-sized girls have taken the monopoly on the word “curvy” to avoid being called “fat.” I’ll stop now before I get accused of calling people fat, despite the fact that I’m in the plus-sized spectrum myself. 😉

    • B

      AMEN. I had to re-read to make sure they were linking 102 & curvy together. Ugh.

  • avaG

    Misty is not the only woman of color making their mark on the ballet world nor is she the curviest. Check out Aeesha Ash and Linda Celeste Sims they are extraordinary!!!! All women of color in all dance companies deserve respect. Misty does not acknowledge this, she taked alot of credit like she is a pioneer and she is not. Humility is best even if you are trying to impress a Prince lol

  • Lodis Dinwiddie

    I’m so proud of her. Push on Misty, there are so many rooting for you and looking to you to pave the way for other little black girls who are dreaming to one day be a ballerina.

  • Gayla C

    I just saw something on NBC about Misty. She is just lovely! And while I am white, I agree with the comment about her being the first “prominent” black ballerina. I didn’t see her as curvy, all I saw the muscles! She is one toned lady! In the short piece I was very impressed by her.
    And yes, there have been a few other blacks before her, she is still very special and no one should take that away from her. She is still in a sea of white and she floats to the top!
    I envy her, as I would loved to have taken dance lessons. I didn’t get a chance to until I was an adult and by then it was too late… and my shape was even less like hers for ballet!

  • Pingback: 2014: The Year of the Big Booty? | Nobody or a Nation()