Misty Copeland and the Brief Untold Story of America's Black Ballet Dancers

Misty Copeland and the Brief Untold Story of America's Black Ballet Dancers

Misty Copeland made history on Tuesday when she was promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. The move makes Copeland the first black female principal dancer in the theater's 75-year history, according to the New York Times.

Her ascension is the result of her own hard work, and decades of struggles faced by America's black ballerinas. 

"There were many people who seemed not to want to see black ballerinas, who thought that our very presence made ballet less authentic, less romantic, less true," Copeland writes in her memoir. "The bitter truth is I felt that I wasn't being fully accepted because I was black, that leaders of the company just didn't see me starring in more classical roles, despite my elegant line and flow."

 As Copeland knows, many black dancers have dealt with discrimination and dreams cut short. Here are some who laced up before Copeland, and paved the way for her success.

Janet Collins

In many ways, the contemporary story of America's black ballerinas begins with Janet Collins. Born in New Orleans in 1917, Collins moved to Los Angeles as a child and, at 15, auditioned for the prestigious company Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She earned a coveted spot with the company but turned it down because they required her to paint her face and body white in order to perform. 

Eventually, she moved to New York City and became the first black principal dancer at the Metropolitan Opera. 

Collins later taught ballet at the prestigious Balanchine School of American Ballet in New York City. She died in 2003. Recently, Karyn Parsons, of Hilary fame from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign create an animated short film on Collins' journey. The project raised more than $77,000.

Raven Wilkinson

Next came Raven Wilkinson. Wilkinson was only 20 years old in 1955 when she became the first black woman to dance full-time with a major company, the same Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo that had asked Janet Collins to dance in whiteface. 

But racism hounded the young ballerina's career. "I had been told not to try out, that they wouldn't take me, because they toured through cities in the South," Wilkinson told the New Yorker. "But I thought, 'Well, if I don't even try out, I know I'll never have what I want.'"

Wilkinson, who is light-skinned, performed with powder on her skin to make herself appear lighter. But Southern whites, who policed whiteness with dogged determination, eventually found out that she was, in fact, black. She slowly stopped participating in the company's Southern performances, and eventually became a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet.

Arthur Mitchell

Arthur Mitchell, born in 1934, survived a rough childhood in Harlem before he landed at New York City's competitive High School of Performing Arts. There, he studied classical dance before going on to study at the School of American Ballet. In 1954, Mitchell performed alongside fellow black ballet dancers Geoffrey Holder and Alvin Ailey in the musical House of Flowers. The next year, Mitchell debuted as the first black ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet.

In 1969, Mitchell returned to Harlem full-time and launched the Dance Theater of Harlem to provide a supportive space for black dancers to learn the craft and thrive. The school is still around today.

Geoffrey Holder

Geoffrey Holder was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago and learned to dance there until he was discovered by American choreographer Agnes de Mille, who invited him to teach at the Katherine Dunham School. He was a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in the 1950s and later won two Tony Awards for direction and costume design in the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz.

Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey's legacy endures in the famous, predominantly African-American dance company that bears his name, but it began when he saw performances by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Los Angeles. He eventually studied under dancer and choreographer Lester Horton before heading to New York City in the early 1950s, making a name for himself in the city's modern dance scene. 

In 1958, he started the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

It was initially led by Ailey and a group of black modern dancers. The company has since gone on to perform for an estimated 25 million people spread across 48 states, 71 countries and six continents, according to its website

Despite these inroads, the modern dance world is still very much lacking in racial diversity. "Most ballet companies look like an Alabama country club in 1952," Susan Fales-Hill, a writer and a philanthropist who served on the board of American Ballet Theater, told the New Yorker in September. In the United Kingdom, for instance, only two of the English National Ballet's 64 dancers are black.

Copeland's rise has put more spotlight on the problem. Here she is on the cover of Pointe, a dance industry publication, alongside fellow black ballerinas Ashley Murphy and Ebony Williams. 

There's also the Black Ballerinas Tumblr, which is filled with gorgeous images of black dancers. Support is crucial for young dancers of color, according to Copeland. "I can see now how I was so well supported, even in my low times," she told the New Yorker, "but I don't know if I ever felt like I belonged."

After Tuesday, that may change.