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Misty Copeland Is First Black Female Principal Dancer for American Ballet Theater

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Gary Gershoff/Getty

Misty Copeland has been promoted to principal ballerina with American Ballet Theater. And with that promotion, she makes history as the first African-American female to achieve that position in the company’s 75-year history.

Copeland, 32, has danced with the company for 14 years. She became the first black ballerina to star in its production of Swan Lake at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House only last week and has talked openly about race and her status as a role model while enjoying fame that has turned her “performances [into] events, drawing large, diverse, enthusiastic crowds to cheer her on,” as The New York Times reports.

Misty Copeland dances at the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2014.
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS/Getty
Her wide fame beyond the dance world – she’s been a soloist with ABT for eight years – extends to her half-million Instagram followers, an online ad for Under Armour that’s been viewed 8 million times, and her authorship of a children’s book, Firebird.

Her Swan Lake debut attracted so many autograph seekers that the crowd had to be cleared from the stage door, according to the Times.

In a memoir released last year, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Copeland wrote: “My fears are that it could be another two decades before another black woman is in the position that I hold with an elite ballet company. That if I don’t rise to principal, people will feel I have failed them.”

After gracing the cover of Time magazine this year as one of its influential Time 100, the native of Kansas City, Missouri, told the magazine: “Something that my mother instilled in me, as a biracial woman herself, and me being biracial, was that the world was going to view me as a black woman, no matter what I decided to do.”

“I had no idea that that was going to be my truth at some point in my life, when I moved to New York City at 17 years old and joined American Ballet Theater and realized I was the only African American woman in a company of 80 dancers.”

“I never saw a ballerina who looked like me before,” she told Time, acknowledging the mentoring of black ballerinas like Raven Wilkinson and the inspiration she felt to “try and open up the doors for the history of African-American ballerinas that I feel is just not told.”

“I’m here to be a vessel for all these brown ballerinas who have come before me,” she said.