When I got to the restaurant on the night of this photo, it took me a minute to find Misty Copeland. Nice night, authentic little Spanish tapas bar, beautiful people sitting all around. But what became clear right away is that in much the same way that a few friends of ours had planned this get together before her historic promotion at ABT, I was simply as happy to join her with a margarita as I would have been on any other occasion.
Of course, I got that we were not just celebrating a friend anymore. Her friends/colleagues/peers, represented in that gathering alone by Kylie Lewallen, whose gorgeous lines are featured in Ducati ads, Darius Crenshaw, who danced while black for New York City Ballet for eight years, Ebony Williams, fierce Beyonce “single lady” and mainstay at recently defunct Cedar Lake Dance Company (she skyped in), and me, would understand that Misty Copeland’s meteoric rise is not without its challenges. We would field Facebook comments about why she “chooses” to identify as black. We would address the bittersweetness of black family members so disconnected from ballet until now that they had no idea we were doing it before this promotion. We would educate people confused about the significance of principal status at American Ballet Theatre when compared to Dance Theatre of Harlem in the vicious hierarchy of classical ballet, all while explaining that dancers at the latter (historically) were no less good. This was within the first three days of this photo.
I can only imagine what Misty has had to do.
Then there is the history. In a nation exponentially more interested in paying $2,000 for a ticket to the Superbowl than even $20 for a ticket to see Swan Lake, few Americans care who is in the principal tutu. Few care what a tutu is, or what the lines are supposed to look like beneath it. So You Think You Can Dance andDancing with the Stars have done little (if anything) to educate the masses about ballet, even when it is presented on their shows.
For these reasons, the explanation that Misty is not the first black principal in an American ballet company has to be treated carefully, handled like the donor organ in an ER, where the quickness to mistake nuance for hateration can infect like a sneeze. That there is a legacy of noteworthy black ballerinas in the nation who have been fighting for jobs and acknowledgment for years is not part of the current (or past) PR, which those of us in the know are compelled to address (please read fellow dancer/blogger and formidable ballerina Theresa Howard’s comprehensive article The Misty-rious Case of the Vanishing Ballerinas of Color).
Then of course there is the irony: while I have been a fan of Misty Copeland as far back as when she was in the ABT corps de ballet, I have lots of dance colleagues who are suddenly dying to meet her, as if she just got to the scene last year. She made it to household-name status last year, sure. And yes I did spend at least a few hours total in a thread battling radicals who believe she is denouncing all mixed race individuals by not calling herself mixed, a conversation that might not have happened in 2012. But the truth is, Misty didn’t just learn to dance a few weeks before she got the contract. She’s been here in New York for a while, on pointe paying dues, with solid membership in the elite company of several black girls excelling in tutus.
The beautiful part is that Misty wants you to celebrate them all. She is gracious that way. She wants rise for her chocolate sistren in other companies who are striving to stay relevant and en pointe. She wants you to go and see Princess Grace Award Winner Jenelle Figgins at Aspen Ballet, Ashley Murphy at The Washington Ballet, and any of the other worthy black ballerinas without PR or hashtag campaign. She has acknowledged on several occasions mentors like longtime Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson, who managed to rip through the pink nylon ceiling of the field decades ago.
I’m still giddy over this picture of us. And honestly, the fun conversations we had that night were hardly about tendu and plié. Actually, my biggest challenge was trying to figure out whether she suspected that days later, her port de bras (balletspeak for arm carriage) was going to be burdened with the weight of a heavy rock on her finger... At her engagement party more recently, I congratulated her finally. And explained that I needed her to please return to me that very high attitude derriere line that she borrowed for the cover of Essence Magazine. I'd been wondering where that line went, why my body couldn't do it over the past few weeks. Years.
"Would you like me to return the hair as well?" she said, laughing at me.
"Of course. It's been so confusing when I brush it out of my face and don't feel it in my fingers..."