Misty Copeland learned she was the first Black soloist at the American Ballet Theater (ABT) in 2007. Shortly after she learned something else. “I was the second,” Copeland told ESSENCE.
“There had actually been Nora Kimball before me at American Ballet Theater, and I had never seen her photo or name mentioned in a history book. I couldn’t Google her and find out anything about her, but I could Google white soloists throughout history at ABT.”
The situation concerned Copeland. Yes, she was the face of ads for Seiko and Coach, walking red carpets, and getting immortalized one gif at a time on social media, but she knew she did not arrive there on her own. She needed others to know that too.
“All of these things just made me feel like if I can’t find it, I have to make it,” she said. “It’s about time that we have some form of documentation, not just a bio of one Black ballerina or one Black dancer throughout history.”
Copeland became the (actual) first ever Black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in 2015. Six years later she is telling the stories of those who make up the legacy that enabled her journey in a new children’s book, Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy.
“I have a responsibility to use this platform, to use this stage, to bring all of those dancers that put in the work to get me here and give them their due respect, acknowledgement, recognition,” she shared.
The book features brief biographies of dancers including her soloist predecessor Nora Kimball-Mentzos, as well as Lauren Anderson, Aesha Ash, Debra Austin, Delores Browne, Joan Myers Brown, Janet Collins, Marion Cuyjet, Stephanie Dabney, Francis Taylor Davis, Michaela DePrince, Nikisha Fogo, Robyn Gardenhire, Lorraine Graves, Céline Gittens, Alicia Graf Mack, Francesca Hayward, Tai Jimenez, Christina Johnson, Virginia Johnson, Erica Lall, Andrea Long-Naidu, Ashley Murphy-Wilson, Victoria Rowell, Anne Benna Sims, Raven Wilkinson, and Ebony Williams.
Each story is illuminated with a unique illustration by artist Salena Barnes (Love Craft Country, Soul). “When I saw her work, it was like a no-brainer,” said Copeland. “It’s difficult to understand the details and aesthetics, not just of the body, but of the Black body and of a classical dancer.”
Some of the careers in the book she and Barnes bring to life were cited as her inspirations in the pages of her best-selling memoir Life in Motion, An Unlikely Ballerina. “This is not a comprehensive list of all the Black ballerinas that have ever existed,” she clarified. “But these are ballerinas that have impacted my life and my career in some way and it’s important for us to have our history documented – because it’s not.”
Black History in the United States has been traditionally obscured by a culture reluctant to acknowledge barriers to Black achievement. There were times throughout history where Black headliners were barred from being guests in the audience at the establishments where they performed.
Some Black performers were barred from the limelight by accident, others were intentionally blotted out. Whether omissions are based on indifference, embarrassment, or hostility is irrelevant. Forgotten names and faces stand in the gaps of our collective memory as a result. The book sees Copeland’s career as not a bookend but another chapter. “We’re not in this alone,” Copeland declared.
“I just feel like this is my true purpose,” she said, before expressing how vital it was to acknowledge “the dancers that are coming up after me,” in its pages.
“I feel like ballet is so much a part of looking to our past, looking back at these old story ballets that were created in the 1800s and early 1900s that do not reflect society today – definitely don’t reflect Black and Brown people and our experiences,” she said.
“I just feel like this generation, they’re the future of ballet, they’re the future of this world and so to not include them or not acknowledge them, I think just does us a disservice,” added Copeland, who mentors dancers. “I have more than a handful of mentees that come and go throughout my life, like some get older and they stop reaching out as much but I’m open to having those conversations and relationships and for people to see me as a safe space to come and just share my experiences or just vent to me.”
While mentoring is an opportunity for Copeland to help other ballet performers on their path, she reaps benefits as well, as does this genre of dance as a whole.
“I’m influenced by them. I have the opportunity to be in the studio and to be a part of an art form, that’s so intergenerational it’s not just older accomplished ballerinas. You have dancers who are 16 years old coming into the company, and then you have dancers in their late forties that are towards the end of their careers, but you’re influenced and impacted by everyone around you. And if we don’t acknowledge and celebrate and mentor the next generation, then there’s just no future for this art form.
“I think this is a first step,” she continued. “I think showing our community that we have been a part of this and have contributed to the history is a huge start.”
Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy was made available November 2.