by Aiano Nakagawa
Surviving the ballet world is no small feat, even for light skinned, “classically” beautiful dancers. Ballet is seen as a touchstone for European culture, directly reflecting traditional European ideals of gender, beauty, and femininity. If Misty Copeland is the darkest, most curvy, and most muscular professional ballet ballet dancer, you can see not many people fit the bill.
A Ballerina’s Tale gives historical and cultural context of Ballet, from its emergence in the late 15th century Renaissance court culture of Italy, to the modern phenomenon of the skinny dancer which can be dated back to 1963 when George Balanchine began creating ballet and ballerinas to his own ideal. While ballet is one of the most romantic and romanticized art forms, this film shows it for what it is and how antiquated this art form truly is.
The first words spoken in this film are Misty saying, “I think that people think that sometimes I focus too much on the fact that I’m a Black dancer. That’s so much of who I am. I think it’s so much a part of my story. Just making it to this level, I don’t think anyone - no matter what race or gender - is a huge accomplishment. I don’t think people realize what a feat it is, being a Black woman. If they were to go back and read that there’s never been a Black principal woman in the top companies in the world. I don’t think people really understand that.”
At 17 Misty she moved from California to New York City to join ABT (American Ballet Theater). At ABT people began to talk to Misty about her body and she recalls feeling so much shame that she didn’t want to go to class or look at herself in the mirror. Misty struggled with the Eurocentric messages of her skin being too dark and her body being too curvy/muscular. These messages ate away at her, as it would do to any 17 year old.
Unfortunately, this story is not uncommon in the dance world. This is the point when many dancers give up or spiral into the dangerous territories of eating disorders. ABT’s artistic director felt Misty had the talent to go all the way, but the executive director thought she was doing things that “stood in her own way” like not believing in herself, not coming to class, and binge eating. How I see it, this was Misty’s way of cope with all of the body shame, white supremacy, and patriarchal ideals that were pushed upon her as a Black female dancer, not her trying to stand in her own way.
The ABT directors reached out to Susan Fales-Hill, a television producer, author, screenwriter and an advocate for the arts and education. Fales-Hill stepped in to mentor Misty and guided her through navigating the elite dance world as a woman of color.
Fales-Hill helped Misty realize her dancing was for a bigger purpose than herself. She helped Misty see that she could make history and be the first ever, Black ballerina in an elite dance company. Fales-Hill introduced Misty to a group of successful Black women who were the firsts in their fields. These women went through their own version of what Misty was experiencing - sexism, racism, classism - and had the resources and knowledge to support Misty. This community of strong, successful, trailblazing women was crucial for Misty to get to the place she is now.
Raven Wilkinson, one of Misty’s mentors was the first African American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company. Wilkinson recalls no one ever wanting to talk about race when she was dancing. She and Misty discuss how people now are talking about race and how that is allowing people to work through their biases and beliefs.
Misty recalls the first time she learned about Raven Wilkinson and how she sobbed, because she didn’t know there were any other Black ballerinas at an elite level. For so long, Misty thought she was the only one. Seeing Wilkinson sent Misty on a mission to learn about more Black ballerinas and to try and educate other people about Black ballerinas.
As POC, sharing our stories and experiences can change the lives of other with a shared experience by offering a feeling of solidarity for shared oppression and support on their journey. If you live a life separate from dominant narrative and never share your experience it is 1. isolating to you, and 2. robbing someone who shares a similar experience of knowing they are not alone. Where would Misty be without the guidance, support, and stories of these women?
This film was released in a time of racial awakening, in a time when people are taking a deeper look into what we consume on a mass level. Ballet has roots deeply embedded in Eurocentrism, classicism, racism, and sexism because it was created in a to reflect time and culture that had those values. Now, hundreds of years later, it’s time to reevaluate and change with the times. Ballet, in it’s original form (strict gender roles, racial exclusion, etc.) is no longer relevant. It needs to change or it will be left behind.
I’ve seen ballet begin to shift towards a more inclusive and accessible art form. I feel a major change coming and this film serves as a catalyst for these conversations to begin within the dance world.