Misty Copeland Says Ballet Industry Is 'Extremely Behind' on Racial Equality, Justice

As recently as 2015, Misty Copeland became the first Black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater

Misty Copeland Stuart Weitzman campaign
Photo: Lacey

Misty Copeland is speaking out about racial injustice and inequality in ballet.

In a new candid interview with Yahoo Finance, the famed dancer said that the ballet world is "extremely behind" on issues of racism and inequality. She discussed her own experiences dealing with these problems as a Black female dancer, witnessing a lack of diversity in her companies or blackface in productions.

"It's something that the ballet world has been very easily able to just kind of get away with. It's something that I've talked about very openly and freely in trying to be the most respectful as I can, because I know the deep rooted traditions and history in classical dance," she explained.

"Being a European art form and the fact that we still perform those ballets that were created in that time in Europe to this day, just says a lot about where we are in the ballet world when it comes to racism," Copeland added.

However, Copeland said she is optimistic for change that is being brought out by the recent social reckoning following the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

"This has been my life's work as a dancer, speaking about racism in the world and in ballet speaking about the lack of diversity, and to have my company — to have the ballet world — listening and to have different panels to speak about this in a way that I have before but again, for the first time, people are really seeing it," she said to Yahoo Finance.

Misty Copeland. Photographed by Albert Watson/ 2019 Pirelli Calendar

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In 2015, Copeland became the first Black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. This June, the company released a statement announcing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

"American Ballet Theatre mourns together with and for the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the countless others who have lost loved ones because of racism," it read. "In the fight for justice and equality, we stand with these fellow Americans and the communities of black and brown people all over this country who endure. While we stand in solidarity, we will not just stand by in the face of hate and violence."

The statement continued: "We must devote ourselves to doing better. Doing more.We must pursue justice, with the determination that dancers embody and the empathy that is the hallmark of the ABT community. Black lives do matter."

In December, Copeland spoke out against the famed Russian ballet company, Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre, for blackface while producing the ballet “La Bayadère,” which is set in India.

“And this is the reality of the ballet world ….” Copeland wrote on Instagram at the time.

Misty Copeland Calls Out Russian Ballet Company for Blackface
Misty Copeland/Instagram. Inset: Mat Hayward/Getty

“I’m tired of giving the oppressors the benefit of the doubt,” she added. “They need to be exposed, called out, educated and more. I have lived in the ballet world for 25 years. I have silenced myself around ‘them,’ and made them feel comfortable and suffered in silence. At 37 I feel ready and free to stop.”

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Copeland explained why some companies in other countries continue to disregard the racial insensitivity of blackface in performances, but added that there needs to be a movement away from it.

"Companies in other countries, their reasoning is that that's not their history, so it doesn't have the same meaning to them," she said.

"It’s like, well, this ballet is all over the world. You can go on YouTube, and you can watch the Bolshoi Ballet and see that, so it's not solely isolated, like maybe it once was. And if you want to keep the art form, alive and relevant and growing, you're gonna have to open your doors," she added, explaining that the use of blackface drives members of the Black community away from ballet.

"Why would they want to pay for a ticket and come into the theater when they're going to be disrespected on the stage?" Copeland said.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.
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