I’m not saying that if there had been a Misty Copeland when I was young, I would have been a professional ballerina. I had neither the discipline nor talent to be anything more than a skinny, bow-legged girl trying to remember the difference between fourth and fifth positions. Yet I longed for the inspiration that Copeland — who just became the first African-American female principal dancer in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theatre — is for many black girls. Through her, they can now imagine a life in classical dance.
When Copeland made her New York debut last month in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” a New York Times critic called her part “the most epic role in world ballet.” In truth, Copeland’s most epic role in ballet has always been being Misty Copeland.
This year, Copeland was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People and was featured on its cover. She has been with ABT for 14 years, eight of them as a soloist. With her acclaimed lead performance in “Swan Lake,” she became the first black woman to dance the demanding dual roles of Odette/Odile in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
While Copeland, 32, is not the first top-tier black ballerina — Raven Wilkinson and Lauren Anderson, to name a few, came before her — none has had as profound an impact. And that is a part Copeland, who at times was discouraged from pursuing a career in the overwhelmingly white world of ballet, has mastered with as much grace and power as she displays on stage.
“I think that’s why people go to see performances. They want to see something beautiful, but they also want to see themselves up there,” Copeland once said. “They want to be able to dream of what, maybe, they dream about doing — going up there and dancing. But it’s hard to envision that when you don’t see yourself represented up there.”
My mother enrolled me in ballet school at age 5, presumably as a means of channeling my fidgety energy in a way that didn’t reinforce my tomboy tendencies. I liked the hour-long sessions, but only to a point. Even at that age, two things about ballet classes were irredeemable for me. First, my teacher yelled too much; when that failed, she would swat us on the legs with a wooden stick if our toes weren’t pointing just right or our plies got a little too ragged.
Even more disheartening, I was the only black girl in my class. Everyone treated me fine enough, but I could never quite shake the feeling of being somewhere I might not belong. Nowhere else in my life — not school, not church — did I feel as racially isolated, and the sadness of those Saturday mornings remains palpable. I stayed long enough to dance in our recital at Carnegie Hall, and when my mother later asked if I wanted to continue, I quietly said no.
A few years later, I took up the trumpet, inspired not by Louis Armstrong, who lived in my Queens, N.Y., neighborhood, but Cynthia Robinson, who played trumpet in Sly and the Family Stone. I could never be as good, but Robinson gave me a blueprint to dream by.
That’s what Copeland means for so many, and why her ascension at ABT is significant beyond the world of classical dance. Like the Williams sisters in tennis, Neil deGrasse Tyson in science, or President Obama, Copeland is a pioneering cultural figure redefining high achievement in a field once believed limited for African-Americans. She represents more than possibilities for young black girls in leotards and tutus. With her resolve and willingness to be a role model, Copeland is helping a new generation discover that the world always looks bigger when you can see your reflection in it.
Renee Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.
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