Jordan Levin

Misty Copeland promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre

Misty Copeland in Swan Lake.
Misty Copeland in Swan Lake.

The African-American ballerina Misty Copeland has been promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, the first black female dancer to reach the top rank at one of America’s most storied and largest classical dance companies. The move is a marker in a heated dance world debate about the dearth of African-Americans in ballet, which was a focus of the recent Dance/USA conference in Miami.

Copeland, who came to ballet at the late age of 13 and rose from poverty in San Pedro, California to stardom in New York, has highlighted that controversy. She and her five siblings were raised by a single mother, at one point living in a motel room. In ABT’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera, she was acclaimed for her New York debut as the lead in Swan Lake, and her first performance in Romeo and Juliet – leading to speculation that she would finally be given a top slot at ABT.

Now 32, Copeland, who has been a soloist since 2007, has also become a rare ballet celebrity. This year she appeared on the cover of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and she has written a best-selling memoir, Life in Motion. An inspirational "I Will What I Want" commercial she did for Under Armour went viral on Youtube, and she has been featured in numerous media stories. When she performs, ABT’s audiences become much more diverse. Her fame and dramatic rise helped bring attention to what might have otherwise remained an obscure dance world controversy – and resonated at a time when race and racism have again become a central issue in American life.

Stereotypes and unconscious (or conscious) prejudice about pale sylphs and swans, or that black dancers are too muscular and have the "wrong" bodies for ballet, have helped lead to black dancers being extremely rare at ballet companies. The lack of role models discourages African-American children from studying classical dance.

Ballet "should be open to anyone being a part of it," Copeland told CBS Sunday Morning. Last December, she told The Wall Street Journal that "being African-American has pushed me to work harder than I might have if I didn’t have that obstacle. If I had to stop today, I would be so proud of what I’ve done."