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Misty Copeland did an interesting interview with NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Her new memoir came out this month and it’s called The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson. Misty writes about her experiences on her way up as a Black woman in the ballet world and about her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, the first Black ballerina to receive a contract with a major ballet company. In the interview, Misty talks a little bit about childbirth (she had a baby boy, Jackson, earlier this year), but mostly about the overwhelmingly white world of ballet. It’s fascinating and also frustrating. Some highlights:

On her 2012 injury and feeling she was letting down the Black community: When the first surgeon warned her that she might never dance again, Copeland was devastated. “It was just like my whole world came crashing down,” she says. “I felt mostly like I was letting down the Black community.” As a Black woman, Copeland had heard for years that her skin color, her body and her hair didn’t conform to what ballerinas were supposed to look like. After finally opening a door in the ballet world to other dancers who looked like her, she didn’t want that door to slam shut because of an injury.

On the coded language around her body: “Once I became a professional, that’s when people started to really see me as a Black woman in a company where there weren’t any. And that’s when the language started to change around me fitting in. Still, to this day, I will read things that [say] I don’t belong because my breasts are too large, my muscles are too big, I’m too short. But these are all excuses because there are so many dancers who are not of color, who have similar body types to me that are shorter, that have larger breasts and bigger muscles. So throughout the course of my professional career, it’s really been about me understanding the language that’s being used and having conversations about that because that’s been what’s turned so many Black women away from ballet is because they’re told those things.:

On the norm of white skin in ballet: “The norm is that everyone wears pink tights and that’s representative of white skin. So it was something I was aware of when I was 19 and came into ABT that I would have to wear pink tights … and then have to go on stage and attempt to make my skin look like the other dancers. It chips away at you. The more that I look around and not see people who look like me, not see other women who look like me, and I’m painting my skin over and over, it was something I started to talk about. If it’s just to make us look otherworldly, then why can’t I have brown powder to powder my skin to take that shine away? Why am I changing the color? And I did it as a principal dancer the last time I performed the role of Swan Lake, I did that and in other roles where I was told to paint my skin white. So I did push back. But we have a long way to go, still.”

On being under scrutiny as the first Black principal ballerina with ABT: “When I was making these debuts in big, leading roles, for most dancers, you’ll make your debut on a Wednesday matinee. And some people will come and there probably won’t be a critic there at all to critique your show or talk about it. And I had the exact opposite experience. Every time I was making a debut in a role, The New York Times was there. There were blogs and people writing, ‘Will Misty succeed? And if she doesn’t, what does that mean for her career? What does that mean for the African American dance community?’”

[From NPR]

Misty also says some interesting stuff about being told to do modern dance instead of ballet because people thought barefoot dancing was more fitting for Black dancers. I have a lot of thoughts on this whole interview because I used to do ballet as a tween/young teenager. The coded body stuff definitely came up — I’m short and wasn’t quite as skinny as the other girls in the class. The company director was a short, “curvy,” white woman (randomly, also with an unusual portmanteau first name like mine) and would say things like “Peridot is like me, we’re short and curvy, we don’t have the usual dancer body.” It made me feel weird and singled-out, especially because I knew I wasn’t “curvy” and was a pretty average-sized 12-year-old in the real world. I don’t remember if she explicitly pushed me toward jazz and hip-hop, but I definitely felt I’d fit in better there due to my “size.” Long story short, I quit and joined cheerleading.

Also, I saw Misty in Swan Lake seven years ago. I was super excited to see her because I wished there’d been a Black ballerina for me to look up ~13 years earlier. She was amazing, but I remember saying to my friend afterward that I was surprised her skin tone blended in with the other dancers’ under the stage lights. I did not realize they were painting her white! I’ve heard all the stuff about the color of the shoes and the tights, but it’s so messed up they were actually painting her skin. And silly too — everyone knows Misty’s Black and she’s the lead so she shouldn’t look like the other dancers. Anyway, Misty has overcome a lot and broken barriers for other Black ballerinas and continues to do so by speaking about it. The bit about the press is infuriating and perfectly encapsulates why she felt the way she did about her injury.



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