An Unlikely Swan Rises From the Lake
There are many swans like Misty Copeland, each with a unique set of initiatives and dreams. They’re the role models and pioneers of today. The inventive and renaissance characteristic always part of the human spirit. And today, encouraged by a new generation, it has become more in vogue than at any point in history.
Surprising a few and gratifying many, Misty – the unlikely ballerina from San Pedro, California – was promoted to principal dancer this summer by the American Ballet Theater. However, she’s not too “unlikely” either. En pointe and on stage Misty is a graceful statue of steel. Her artistic variations follow years of hard work, and a genuine talent contributes to her inspiring journey beautifully.
For the first time in A.B.T.’s 75 year history, an African American ballerina will perform on stage at the highest rank, beginning with this summer’s Swan Lake. Before Misty, ballet was perceived as a childhood memory of fluffy tutus and Nutcrackers that soon became replaced by a light but still too difficult to follow style of entertainment. Learning about Misty’s story the world of ballet and a crowd of new enthusiasts experienced something “unlikely” indeed and unique. For the first time and at this level, a ballet dancer has not only filled the gaps of race, age and physique diversity but also of talent and mainstream. She’s a social magnet full of challenges and inspiration “unlike” any other artist and athlete we’ve celebrated in a long time.
Misty is the long-awaited role model to represent today’s American ballet. Ballet needed Misty the same way America yearned for Obama.Undoubtedly the race characteristic plays an evident role but with a peaceful invitation to discuss the remaining gaps of the cultural, artistic and diversity balance still needed to fulfill our society. And most importantly, race doesn’t define it completely. Their path and definition of success is the American dream as we all know it and as we continuously strive to reach for it.
As American Ballet Theater’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie mentioned in the New Yorker – ten years ago, Misty might have not been ready for the same long classical roles which she’s portrayed in the past three years – one can’t help but wonder, what if the world had been more appreciative and accepting of Misty’s potential sooner? Surely, each success story has its path. Misty’s has been a journey of challenge to the point of no return. Many times she’s had to overcome obstacles of rejection as a responsibility to those before her and for the next generation. “I had moments of doubting myself, and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level,” Misty said in a news conference at the Metropolitan Opera House. “At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through, to carry the next generation. So it’s not me up here — and I’m constantly saying that — it’s everyone that came before me that got me to this position.”
While her success is inspiring and ballet like surreal, it is also a message to reassess our ability to recognize such “unlikely” great talents. With that in mind, we can’t wonder too far from the status of today’s education and our available platform of opportunities as a whole. Dishearteningly no matter what your aspirations are, if you don’t fit “the standard,” most often you are blindly disqualified, rejected, and labeled unlikely. It’s almost like we’re stuck watching black and white television in a society where one format of assessment pleases a few [sometimes secure jobs] and disappoints many, especially in the long run.
Skin color and our inability to look past it seems to be part of the discussion when you think of Misty in ballet, even though she’s perfectly unique, especially on stage. And she’s not alone on this unconventional journey. The reality of the many obstacles that Misty had to overcome relates to old ideals and barriers whose purpose new generations struggle to understand. Top universities mostly feed on outstanding scores, while undergraduate degrees and their “brand” influence decide the university which will favorably consider your application. A few setbacks can determine your whole future, especially early on when you are too vulnerable.
While standards are equally valuable, we’re slowly realizing that the idea that they’re meant to remain intact is an illusion. The continuation of a standard itself is assured only through its growth. It’s a promise to our past and our future, whether we entertain, teach, write, learn or represent a new ideal. With the occasion of Misty’s advancement to principal dancer, we are learning that perfect comes in different shapes, report cards, accents, skin colors, faiths, and talents.
The beauty of ballet is that it follows a system of basic movements which have been magically developed into many endless Swan Lakes. It’s a classical and modern form that grows through each dancer’s strength of character and spirit. There is a lesson to be learned from Misty’s ballet. We are free to follow standards as long as we are also responsible for maintaining their progress.
There are many swans like Misty Copeland. We just have to learn to recognize their value sooner. The American ballet community could write Misty a thank you letter, not that eventually after many years we won’t regardless. It is because of beautiful, brave and unique souls like Misty’s that our world – and in this case ballet – advances beyond our dreams.
Header image credit: Misty Copeland starred in American Ballet Theatre's production of 'The Firebird.' Rosalie O'Connor / American Ballet Theatre