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“This is for anyone who has searched to find his or her reflection,” Misty Copeland writes in the dedication to her new book, Black Ballerinas: My Journey to our Legacy. Misty Copeland, who is the first Black female principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, often uses her status and platform to promote trailblazers in the ballet world. She also uses her voice to breakdown stereotypes such as women having to possess certain body types, skin tones, or backgrounds in order to “make it” as a dancer. She has overcome hurdles throughout the course of her many years as a ballerina and is an outspoken figure that calls for change in the ballet world, citing that ballet is not just a white space, but a space for everyone to discover their love of dance.

As she notes in the introduction to her book, Misty was the only Black dancer in a company of more than 80 dancers for her first 10 years as a ballerina with American Ballet Theatre (ABT). While she recognizes that colorism has given her a boost of privilege both on and off the stage, she discusses how racism has touched dancers of all colors. She closes her introduction and sets up her book with, “Black dancers are not a monolith, but it is my hope that the success of any of us will ultimately allow for the success of all of us.”

Copeland’s book outlines 27 Black ballerinas, their journeys breaking into the ballet world, the different struggles they endured to make a name for themselves in a predominantly white space, and how these brave ballerinas inspired Misty’s own journey toward becoming one of the most famous Black ballerinas in the world today.

Throughout her discussion of these 27 Black dancers, Misty explains the underlying racism as well as prejudices against certain body types that Black dancers often come against. She describes coded language ballet companies used in the past and still use today in order to block Black dancers from rising through the ranks of the ballet world, such as not having the correct shades of makeup available for darker-skinned dancers, stating a Black ballerina’s body will be a distraction on stage, being unable to “blend in” with the other dancers on stage due to skin tone, being too tall, too wide through the hips and legs, and dozens of other limiting standards are detailed throughout these women’s stories.

As an example, when discussing ballerina Debra Austin, the first Black principal female dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet, Copeland tells of an instance that occurred after Austin was cast as the Sylph in the ballet La Sylphide. An individual in authority stated she had never seen “a Black Sylph.” The artistic director of the ballet challenged this statement and asked the woman that given a sylph is a mythical creature, “Have you ever seen a sylph before?” Misty writes that these comments and criticisms “are used to communicate that our Black and brown bodies do not belong in classical ballets. And, sadly, it’s something that Black and brown ballerinas are still dealing with today.”

Highlighting trailblazers in dance

Despite the overt racism Black ballerinas suffered especially in the twentieth century, Copeland gracefully reaches back into the past and invites trailblazers who were overlooked in their time to join her on the world stage today.

In her highlight of Raven Wilkinson, the first Black ballerina to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe in 1955, Copeland recounts Wilkinson’s many accomplishments amid racial struggles. She was the only Black dancer with the company at the time and had to sneak into white-only hotels while touring. When the company toured in the South, the KKK threatened her life. This terrifying encounter caused Wilkinson to leave the company and leave behind dancing altogether for a time.

Wilkinson ultimately left the states and began performing with the Dutch National Ballet. She toured for seven years before coming back to the United States and dancing with the New York City Opera’s ballet ensemble until 1985. She was then a character actress with the opera company before retiring in 2011. Copeland outlines all of Wilkinson’s triumphs while noting the unfair sacrifices she endured of her career, talent, and livelihood due to racism and the ballet world’s lack of protection and resources.

In a heartfelt and prodigious moment, Copeland recounts an experience in which she allowed Wilkinson a moment of much-deserved praise for being such a catalyst of opportunity for Black Ballerinas. In the Fall of 2014, after Wilkinson had been a friend and mentor to her for several years, Copeland made her debut as the first Black woman to perform the lead role in Swan Lake with ABT. During her bows, Wilkinson joined her onstage to present flowers. In a beautiful display of respect, Copeland writes, “When I saw Raven walking toward me from the wings, it hit me that she had never experienced being on that stage taking her own bows. She should have that opportunity. I dropped to one knee and handed her back the flowers she’d given me—we shared the standing ovation.” Copeland underscores how she and many others, despite their enormous talent, have only been afforded the opportunities to dance on the world’s most regarded stages due to fearless Black women who came before and who made great sacrifices for the forthcoming generations.

Copeland also uplifts and utilizes her platform to push rising Black ballerinas into the spotlight. One such dancer, Ebony Williams, has taken a hold of not only the ballet world, but pop culture and several other dance mediums. She was one of two of Beyoncé’s backup dancers in her renowned “Single Ladies” music video and has worked on Broadway in the musical Jagged Little Pill as well as on the screen in Beyoncé’s film Black Is King. Williams is a force in the ballet world as evidenced by Misty’s quoting of Williams, stating, “My role as a Black ballerina is to represent all that’s not expected when you see a ballet dancer. Dark, shapely, overly muscular, a funky mover who rocks an Afro.” Williams is reflective of other Black ballerinas mentioned in this book who are applying their own unique style to not just the stage, but magazines, movies, social media, and mentorship programs, proving that ballet is not confined to just one artistic expression. Dancers such as Alicia Graf Mack, Nikisha Fogo, Michaela DePrince, Francesca Hayward, and more have made and continue to make their stamp on pop culture, thrusting Black ballerinas to center stage.

Misty’s Black Ballerinas has already cemented its place in the ballet world. While she recognizes ballerinas who have carved their own path and those who are following in others’ footsteps, Misty also brings to light information on the first Black ballerinas who have been kept from the public eye for decades. Too often, documents, playbills, and accounts of Black dancers from the twentieth century were either destroyed or not kept record of in the first place. Because of this, Copeland’s Black Ballerinas: My Journey to our Legacy is certain to become a classic for Black children in the years to come. Not only are her stories words of encouragement to current dancers of color; they are the integrity that keeps the ballet world for Black dancers a community, a strong family, and a thriving space for up-and-coming ballerinas seeking to make their own mark on the dance world.