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Misty Copeland's tough balancing act
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By Andrea Peyser
July 10, 2015

Misty Copeland's tough balancing act

Brava! Has the ballet color barrier been shattered for good?

There existed every reason why this never should have happened. But on June 30, Misty Copeland made history.

Petite at just 5 foot 2 and unusually muscular and curvy for a ballerina, Copeland achieved something both awesome and rare. Born in Missouri and mired in poverty as a child in California and despite having not strapped on ballet shoes until age 13, Copeland, 32 years old, was named a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre.

Copeland is not only one of the few to emerge as world-class prima ballerinas. She is the first black woman to rise to this level in the prestigious city-based company’s 75-year history. (A black man, Desmond Richardson, was a principal dancer for ABT in 1977-78.)

Copeland, of African-American, German and Italian heritage, embraces the title of role model as easily as she draws audiences with black and brown faces in numbers previously unseen at these shows.

“Just because I’m here in this position now doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not still going to be hard for others,” she told E! News after her promotion. “Barack Obama being president of the United States doesn’t mean racism has disappeared.”

The lack of racial diversity in ballet raises a ticklish question. Is the overwhelmingly lily-white collection of dancers the result of deliberate snubs to people like Copeland?

But — does calling attention to her race diminish her achievement?

Virtually no one would accuse those who run ballet companies of intentional discrimination.

“There’s a stereotypical idea of what a ballerina should look like,” Mikki Shepard, the African-American executive producer of the Apollo Theater, told me.

“I think this is true for most of us. You fear the unknown. You fear what is new to you,” said Shepard. “The bottom line is we’re very happy she is where she is. It will open the door for other people.”

Lane Harwell, executive director of Dance/NYC, a trade group, noted 76 percent of city dance workers under age 35 are white.

“Misty’s promotion signals change and opportunity for a new generation of ballet dancers,’’ Harwell, who is white, told me in an e-mail.

But David Webb, the conservative Sirius XM radio host, Tea Party 365 founder and Fox News contributor, told me, “I would rather that she be seen as an inspiration to all, not as a picture to some.” Webb, who is African-American, is delighted Copeland might inspire black youngsters to emulate her. But he warns that drawing too much attention to her race could make it appear as if she succeeded for reasons other than merit.

“If she’s achieved because of her talent, and I believe that she has, then why does the color of her skin matter?” Webb asked.

Copeland has roared into the popular culture, co-authoring a children’s book and writing a 2014 memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.” Optioned for a movie, the book describes her hardscrabble upbringing, at one time living in a motel with her single mom, who bore six kids, and her return from a back injury that nearly ended her career.

She’s performed with rocker Prince and appeared in an ad for Under Armour that got more than 8 million views on YouTube. This year, she was named to Time’s list of The 100 Most Influential People.

I believe Misty Copeland catapulted into prominence on her talent alone. But she refuses to shirk from what she sees as a responsibility to serve as a trailblazer for people of color. It’s a tough balancing act.

She deserves hearty applause.

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