Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Women's History Month: Misty Copeland, The Real Black Swan

To celebrate Women's History month, throughout March check out a series of features on women who have impacted history as it relates to music.

Before last week, I hadn't heard of Misty Copeland before.  However, after watching a segment on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, I quickly realized why I should know about her.  At the age of 30, Misty Copeland is the third African-American female soloist (Anne Benna Sims - 1970s and Nora Kimball  - 1980s precede her) and the first in 2 decades at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), which is one of 3 leading classical ballet companies in the US.

How she got here is really unheard of.  According to ballet standards, she was trained late in life and she's a black woman who is curvy at 5'2" and 103 pounds.  All these factors typically don't fit the ballerina mold.  Anyone who has seen ballet or even the movie Black Swan knows what I'm talking about.

The 4th out of 6 children of a single mother, Misty was born in Kansas City, MO, and raised in San Pedro, CA.  As a kid, she never took ballet or gymnastics classes but she did teach herself how to do backflips and created choreography to Mariah Carey songs.  Misty's first "ballet" classes was at her local Boys & Girls Club at the age of 13, which by that time most kids have already had years of training.  After only 8 months of study, Misty performed as Clara in The Nutcracker, attracting 2,000 people at every show.   By 15, Misty was labeled the best young dancer in Southern California.   

By 18, she accepted a full scholarship to attend ABT's Summer program which in the end she was among 6 girls picked out of 150 to join the company was part of the American Ballet Theatre.  Misty experienced many obstacles.  Once in company, she began to realize how different she was from the other dancers.  She felt at times they limited her to more contemporary roles rather than classical.  Due to her stature, many of the clothes didn't fit her body type.  Also, can you imagine looking at the dancers around you and not seeing anyone that looked like you? 

Misty has had roles in Don Quixote, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Chocolate Nutcracker (the African American version narrated by Debbie Allen), Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty just to name a few.  In an interview for O Magazine, Misty said that before going on stage in Swan Lake, she would listen to her iPod to escape for a minute.

Performing to "Falling" - 2010

Prince even saw the beauty of her dance and in 2009 featured Misty in his Crimson & Clover video.  She also performed during selected shows of his Welcome 2 America tour in 2011 (click here to see her perform with Prince to The Beautiful Ones on Lopez Tonight).

Misty's goal is to change the face of ballet and provide other images of the ballerina.  She wants young girls out there, especially who are black to see themselves in her.  It doesn't stop there, Misty is now aiming to be the 1st black principal dancer for ABT!  In addition, she's working on a dance wear line that caters to curvy and plus-sized women.  In the Spring, she will be inducted into the Boys & Girls Club National Hall of Fame.

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