Lately, there's been a lot of discussion in the ballet world about gender equality. Some dancers say it's time for ballet to embrace feminism, others say there's "no such thing as equality in ballet." It's a complicated topic, given ballet's patriarchal history, and the fact that most story ballets are inherently gendered — but in a way that doesn't always align with mainstream conversations about gender equality.
"The history of classical ballet has always been solely focused on the woman and the ballerina, so she clearly has a bigger role in any full length ballet than any man would," Misty Copeland, the first Black woman to ever be promoted to principal in American Ballet Theatre, and the very first ballet dancer to be named an Under Armour sponsored athlete, tells Refinery29. "I don't know that going back in time and revisiting these classics there's ever going to be equality, because the roles were created the way they were. But, moving forward, there's definitely a way to have [equality]."
So, on the one hand, you could argue that ballets actually favour women from an artistic standpoint. But, in terms of who's really at the top in the ballet world, it's impossible to ignore how few female choreographers and directors there are in major companies.
Working with a diverse set of choreographers who are open to creating gender-bending roles or movement is one way Copeland hopes to make an impact. "Just to have that type of freedom, I think, is the way that the dance world should be moving," she says. But she also hopes that introducing classical ballet to new audiences will open people's eyes to the work that still needs to be done. "The fact that I’m being seen by so many people outside of the ballet world is definitely giving us more of a voice to address the lack of diversity," Copeland says. "I’m so proud of that, and I just hope it's something we can continue."
"This is why I’ve worked so hard to just have a voice, and be able to use these incredible platforms like Under Armour to be able to share the hard work that goes into what we do. As dancers, I think we work even harder than professional athletes, because it takes so much strength to be able to make it look effortless.
"We can’t really take any time off, because the technique is so refined that it goes away like that. This is everything I’ve wanted, for dancers to be given the same respect that professional athletes have. And to be able to have the opportunity to be paid what I think we deserve and get endorsement deals."
the fact that I’m being seen by so many people outside of the ballet world is definitely giving us more of a voice to address the lack of diversity.
Even within the fitness world, it seems like there are so many ballet barre-focused workouts. Do you think that's a good thing?
"It's incredible that people are looking at dancers' bodies as healthy, because that hasn’t always been the case. It's been associated with us having eating disorders or being too thin, not being strong. For us to be in this moment and have [people] want to have a strong, lean, feminine body — I think it's amazing. I hope going to these barre classes will introduce people to ballet in a way that they'll want to step into an actual barre class."
What's your hope for future representation in the world of ballet?
"Right now, we’re moving in the right direction. This generation of young people between the ages of 3 and 10 who are minorities, and who come from underserved communities, they're now feeling comfortable enough to walk into a ballet studio because they're seeing themselves represented in a company as big as American Ballet Theatre. I think that, in time, we’re going to see that flock of kids be the future of dance."
Who are some Black dancer or choreographers inspiring you now?
"It's exciting to watch dancers like Calvin Royal, who is a new soloist and is African American. He didn’t start dancing until he was 14 or 15, which is unbelievable. He’s dark, and he’s chocolate, but he is ballet, and he’s a prince. Most people associate Black men with being these hard, kind of sexual objects, and he’s proof that we come in all forms and bring something unique to the ballet world. Just over the course of my career, it’s been amazing to be able to watch people like Alicia Graf, Aesha Ashe, Michaela DePrince, and Lauren Anderson. Then, to have Courtney Levine and Erica Lall in ABT with me; in my now 18 years in the company, it’s the first time I’ve had other Black women in the company with me, so it’s pretty incredible."
What's the number one piece of advice you give to young aspiring Black ballet dancers?
"[I've always] felt it was my responsibility to go out and find Black dancers that I could connect with and relate to, because I wasn’t seeing it on the stage. I think it's important not to get caught up in the fact that they're not surrounded by people that look like them, but to embrace their individuality, and their uniqueness.
"I would say to these dancers to work hard, and try not to get so bogged down by the fact that you’re a Black dancer, but that you’re just a dancer."
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.