When I met Erica Lall for the first time, in 2012, I was returning home to give a talk at my old school in Torrance, California, and she was a student at the American Ballet Theatre summer intensive in Southern California. My teacher told me there was a young Black girl from Houston who was coming with her mother, and really wanted to talk to me. Erica was by my side the whole night.
In 2013, I was back at the ABT studios in New York City, and I poked my head in the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School students’ studio, and I saw this little girl. I thought, Oh my gosh, she’s amazing. She’s jumping so high. When the class ended, I motioned for her to come over to me, and told her, “You’re such a beautiful dancer.” She immediately reminded me that we had met in California the year before. It’s crazy that she’s now in the company with me, and her locker is right next to mine. It’s been this special mentorship. Now she’s my colleague and a good friend.
It’s such a unique thing for someone to bring their own heritage or background to classical dance and give it a new flair.
Erica has such a big personality, and comes alive on stage. Her presence, her smile, and her proportions are perfect for classical dance. Her jump is unbelievable, and she’s really versatile in terms of switching between classical, contemporary, and modern work. Growing up in an African-American home, that family environment and the music you listen to definitely brings out a different type of movement — even though you're trained in classical dance. I saw that within myself, and I see it in her, too. It’s such a unique thing for someone to bring their own heritage or background to classical dance and give it a new flair.
Erica is very mature in terms of knowing what she wants and being assertive in a way that I think really works — especially as a Black dancer. There’s a fine line between maintaining your identity, and not becoming someone you’re not just to fit in with a certain culture. She’s a confident person, and that’s important when you’re starting out in a major ballet company.
I often tell Erica, “God, I wish I was as mature as you are when I was your age.” She grows more and more every day, and we’re becoming closer because we have more in common now. It’s really amazing to be in the position that I’m in, and to have her with me, and to share my experiences of navigating through ABT as the only one.
Misty Copeland was the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, one of the leading classical ballet companies in the world.