Misty Copeland made history this summer by being the first African-American woman appointed to principal at American Ballet Theater. This is after a crazy history – she didn’t start training in ballet until she was thirteen, and she ended up almost being emancipated after a bizarre custody battle between her mother and her mentor/dance teachers who she had been staying with.
In 2007, a year after Lauren Anderson, the first African-American ever to be appointed principal in a “major”American dance company (the Houston Ballet), stepped down, Copeland achieved soloist status and went on to perform in works by Twyla Tharp, Balanchine, and roles like the Firebird in the aptly named The Firebird and Giselle in Giselle.
I think I can speak for a lot of American dance students who were all a little shocked that Misty Copeland was the first African-American ABT principal. Really? It’s 2015. We have robots hanging out on mars and we can’t even get a black girl into a lead role at ABT? This is literally America’s national ballet company (as appointed by congress in 2006). Keep in mind that this ballet company isn’t in a town like the one I grew up in, a little town where 99% of the small-ish population was white. This company lives in New York City.
In 1996, Delores Browne Albeson pointed out that a for a company in the most diverse city in the nation, ABT is incredibly whitewashed, that a company with one hundred and twenty-five people shouldn’t be all one color when the city is full of people with ancestries across the globe. She asks “…do you really believe that there are not at least five good black female dancers in this whole nation?” At the same time, smaller, less “prominent” companies like the San Francisco Ballet had a much more integrated corps than the “distractingly” white ABT. (I feel like I should also point out that I’m not blaming the dancers…european descended dancers shouldn’t feel apologetic for being who they are any more than anyone else should)
Keep in mind that, at this point, it was just about getting non-white people into the companies at all, much less into the top tiers. Albeson suggested that “As long as it [racism in ballet] is very polite and never, ever, ever discussed and it’s hands off, it will never change.”
Going back even farther, back to the 1950s when Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo was still a thing, Raven Wilkinson became a soloist in her second year with the company. The trials hadn’t ended yet, though, as she would get kicked out of “white only” hotels when the company toured through the South. Wilkinson, not willing to outright lie about who she was, slipped by the casual racists who assumed she was from South America (which for some reason makes a difference to 1950s racist people?). She said that she “didn’t want to put the company in danger.” At one show, after a hotel incident where the manager asked if she was black and sent her away in a (black only) taxi, the KKK showed up.
What a weight to carry on your shoulders. Imagine that, on top of all the stresses that come along with dancing and touring and performing, you had to worry about your mere presence bringing a hate group to a show that was probably already underfunded and definitely under-appreciated. Imagine that, after a long day of dancing on your goddamn toes in a new space, you couldn’t go back to the hotel with your peers, but that you had to go out of your way to your own. And while I could find no sources on whether or not any of her fellow dancers refused to let her go alone or not, the implied lack of camaraderie is disgusting.
Wilkinson was basically told that she wouldn’t be further promoted in the company and that she ought to start her own school of African dance. Keep in mind that she was a ballet dancer.
After being turned away from ABT, NYCB, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, she found more success in Holland with the National Ballet and then back in the USA with the New York City Opera. She later became a mentor to Misty Copeland.
Wilkinson was not the only black ballet dancer to find more success in Europe, a group including Sylvester Campbell and Christopher Boatwright. Interestingly enough, male ballet dancers had slightly less tribulation getting cast in American ballet companies, but their numbers were still severely lacking among the higher ranks.
While the majority of my own dance education sits with modern dance, I was still thoroughly shocked that I had never heard of people like Wilkinson or Anderson. I know that teachers are always struggling to fit in everything into a few short semesters, and at my school, we focused perhaps three quarters of our time on modern dance, but this is still something that generally isn’t talked about at all in the industry (Mark Morris quipped about it in this quick and amusing article).
It’s hard enough to get people to take us seriously as dancers, sometimes, or to assure people that dance is a serious art and not just a few fun kicks for entertainment. Getting people to take you seriously in 1950 as a black dancer must have felt impossible. All of us should be looking up to dancers like Wilkinson and Anderson if for no other reason than refusing to settle for what was, for refusing to take no for an answer even if they had to cross an ocean to get what they deserved.
There are so many more dancers in this vein who should be at least acknowledged. It is our responsibility to be aware of our past, who we are and where we came from. I don’t have a solution for the current racial situation in the US (nobody does), but in our own sphere, we can all strive for at least a little more awareness in our history as well as our current situation.
Information and quotations from:
Joselli, Deans. “Black ballerinas dancing on the edge: an analysis of the cultural politics in Delores Browne’s and Raven Wilkinson’s careers, 1954-1985”. Temple University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2001. Web.