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Misty Copeland Stays in Step

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Ballet is an art form, even if some ballet critics treat it more like a sport.

A video from a few years back of Misty Copeland dancing in Swan Lake generated world-class pearl-clutching among some commentators.

The video showed Misty performing a series of fouettés, a series of turns made on one foot with leg thrusts at each revolution.

This video had some proclaiming Misty “the worst” and “an embarrassment.” Her most egregious crime? She didn’t do enough fouettés.

Once the offended parties had been revived with smelling salts, they hopped off their fainting couch to express their dismay.

One comment noted that Misty is “extremely expressive and engaging.” This was mentioned almost as an aside, since those qualities couldn’t compensate for those fouettés she didn’t do.

Ballet, obviously, requires stellar technique. But expression shouldn’t be secondary.

A ballet isn’t just a series of dance movements. It’s a story told with motion and music. Like any good story it contains conflict and emotions. Doesn’t that make being “extremely expressive and engaging” major positives?

Misty, who turns 41 on Sept. 10, can’t win for trying with the online dance police. She addressed the video and attendant hubbub graciously, thanking her critics and expressing gratitude for being shown where she could improve. Of course her response was ridiculed as well.

This ad from Under Armour’s campaign featuring female athletes went viral several years ago. The voice over is from actual rejection letters Copeland received while starting her ballet career.

As the first African-American woman named a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, Misty became an inspiration to young dancers of color. It’s a role she takes seriously. Her Misty Copeland Foundation provides afterschool programs for children combining affordable ballet training in their communities with health and wellness, musicianship, mentoring and general tutoring.

In addition to being black in a heavily white profession, Misty’s background is far from typical. She grew up in poverty. She started ballet at 13, far later than most dancers considering dance as a career. She was the subject of a custody battle between her mother and her ballet instructors. 

Regardless, at 16 she danced well enough to receive offers to attend summer workshops at American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theater of Harlem and the Joffrey Ballet.

Even at American Ballet Theatre, Misty experienced feelings of isolation as the only dancer of color there. Negative comments about her body led to an eating disorder.

She overcame these as well, becoming a principal dancer with ABT in 2015, snarky critics be damned.

Those critics, of course, are quick to deny that racism has anything to do with their comments. But there’s still an undercurrent in their criticism that suggests Misty doesn’t deserve to be in ballet’s upper echelons, that her achievements have more to do with publicity than talent.

There’s probably nothing Misty can do to satisfy the hectoring chorus. Nor should she bother. In the end, Misty Copeland will be remembered as a role model, a passionate advocate for dance education and, yes, a great dancer. Her critics will be remembered for their ability to count.

Happy Birthday, Misty.

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