How was your week? RWA National is fast approaching, and I’ve been wondering about workshops, perfecting my pitch and working out my wardrobe. Inevitably, I’ve also been reviewing my progress since San Antonio – finished the book, finaled in some contests, but not yet agented let alone published – and every now and again, I’ve been squashing a niggle of doubt about whether I’ll ever (sigh) get there.
Three days ago, Kay celebrated the fairy-tale triumph of the US women’s soccer team, winners of the World Cup and national heroines. I’d like to extend Kay’s theme of game-changing women by raising a glass to the ballerina Misty Copeland. On 30th June 2015, she became the first ever African-American woman to be promoted to Principal dancer, the ultimate rank at one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world, American Ballet Theatre.
The ballet world has always been notoriously hard on black ballerinas (it’s been slightly easier for male dancers). Ballet originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century, and spread from there to France and Russia. For the next five hundred years or so, ballet was all about the ballerina, and that ballerina was white. The legendary classics are even known as “ballet blanc” works, with stunning choreography for massed ranks of white swans, white sylphs, and ghostly white maidens called wilis.
Misty Copeland came late to ballet at the age of thirteen, not via a ballet school but through a Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, California. One of six siblings raised by a single mother on welfare, she left her family, worked tirelessly to make up for lost time, and eventually crossed the country to join ABT where she never lost her self-belief despite being told repeatedly that her body was wrong for ballet. When she joined ABT she was the only African-American in a company of 80 dancers. She was super-talented, but she was dark-skinned, and almost as shockingly, she was muscular and curvaceous. In this interview on NPR, she said “I was the one brown girl up there, and some people kind of thought I ruined the aesthetic of the group.”
In the same interview, she also said: “Before I knew that there’d never been a black woman…I wanted to dance Odette-Odile and Kitri in Don Quixote and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.” It’s wonderful to report that she recently danced Odette-Odile, the iconic lead in Swan Lake, the definitive ballet blanc, in front of sold-out houses at the Met. She’s also starred in ads for Dr. Pepper, BlackBerry and Under Armour sportswear, performed in concert with Prince, and served as a judge on So You Think You Can Dance.
Her experiences have inspired ABT to launch an initiative called Project Plié, aimed at increasing diversity in the world of dance. The program partners with the Boys and Girls Club of America and smaller regional dance companies to offer training and scholarships to aspiring dancers from diverse and lower-income backgrounds.
If you’re in the mood for an impressive and inspiring true story, consider reading Misty’s autobiography, Life In Motion.
If you have half an hour to spare and you’d like the to hear the highlights from the lady herself, check out this interview on Youtube.
And if half an hour is too long, here’s a one-minute version otherwise known as I Will What I Want, her commercial for the sportswear brand Under Armour which has become a huge viral success.
“Perseverance has just always been something that was in me,” she said in an interview with the Washington Post. I think her example offers inspiration way beyond future generations of African-American dance students.
So the week after next, if I catch myself feeling like a very small fish in the very big pond of the Marriott Marquis, or wondering if I really belong with all those fabulous writers, or if it’s a problem that my story is set in the UK, or questioning whether my pitch is good enough, I’m going to channel the spirit of Misty Copeland, up the road at the Met, taking center stage in her iconic white swan costume.
I Will What I Want. How about you?