Black Dancers, White Ballets

Black Dancers, White Ballets

The New York Times

Laurie A. Woodard
New York University

MISTY COPELAND’S elevation to principal dancer with American Ballet Theater is a tremendous accomplishment for her as a ballet dancer and as an African-American ballerina. Neither her talent nor her achievement should be underestimated. But even as she reaches the apex of her art in the role of Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” her promotion poses complicated questions about black artists in classical ballet.

This country has a long history of embracing exceptional African-Americans decades before we will fully admit their equal talent and abilities. Whether it was Jackie Robinson, Halle Berry or Barack Obama, somebody had to go first. The world of classical ballet is no different.

Since ballet was developed in the court of Louis XIV in late 17th-century France, it has proved resistant to evolving beyond its roots as an elite, rigidly European art form. Balletomanes, choreographers and directors generally concurred that black bodies were unsuited to the lines of classical technique. Racism and discrimination continued to plague ballet, and throughout most of the 20th century, African-Americans were largely barred from quality training and professional careers.

Largely, but not completely. Although Ms. Copeland is the first African-American ballerina to attain the rank of principal dancer with the historically white A.B.T., she is not the first African-American professional ballerina. In fact, the line is long and illustrious, including Janet Collins, who danced with the Metropolitan Opera House in the early 1950s; Raven Wilkinson, who joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955; Nora Kimball, one of the first African-American soloists (a rank below principal) with A.B.T.; and the legendary Virginia Johnson of the Dance Theater of Harlem

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