When American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland first joined the company in 2000, she found herself the only Black woman among more than 80 dancers. A year earlier she had seen a photo of Black ballerina Lauren Anderson on the cover of Dance Magazine, which had made a profound impression on her: a Black dancer representing the “very white and exclusive ballet world,” she writes in her new book, Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy. These experiences inspired her to explore her lineage as a Black ballerina, and Copeland “dug, read, and researched” to learn about the Black ballerinas, like Anderson, who had come before her. Author of three previous books, Copeland believes the resulting book, a collection of profiles of 27 Black ballerinas, with illustrations of each dancer by Salena Barnes, is the most important one she will ever write. She spoke with PW about the challenges of researching these women, the process of writing and shaping the book, and the issues of racism and colorism in the ballet world.
How did you go about researching the Black ballerinas of the past?
The researching was so difficult! When I was promoted to soloist in 2007 and all the headlines were about me being the first Black soloist at ABT, the dancer Julie Kent told me about Nora Kimball-Mentzos, who had been a soloist with ABT in the 1980s. She was actually the first Black soloist with the company. But when I Googled her name, absolutely nothing came up. It wasn’t until 2013, when we were working on my memoir Life in Motion, that Gilda [Squire], my manager, was somehow able to get in touch with Nora’s sister. It’s been a journey of reaching out any way we could to contact the dancers and learn more about them.
Here’s another example: when I started working on the book, one of my young dance mentees named Makeda told me about Frances Taylor Davis, who had begun dancing professionally in the 1940s—and who eventually became one of the driving forces behind my desire to write this book. Makeda was somehow related to Frances and she passed her phone number on to me and I was able to talk to her. Over the years before Frances died in 2018, we formed a strong relationship.
I found a lot of the dancers through this kind of word-of-mouth, through my connections at Dance Theater of Harlem, through watching DVDs of performances. The lack of documentation on Black ballerinas made me so sad that I began to feel it was my responsibility, with my visibility and my platform, to do this research and to write down the legacy.
How did you choose the 27 ballerinas who are profiled in the book?
It was extremely difficult to select the dancers to include. It was really a team effort between me, Gilda, and my editor Alyson Heller—even my husband got in on the decision-making. So many dancers have touched my life and inspired me, it was hard to make the selections that would shape the book. For example, Marion Cuyjet made it in at the last minute: even though she herself was never able to dance professionally, as I researched the other dancers, I began to realize what an important through line she was—like Philadelphia, where many Black ballerinas first trained, like Dance Theater of Harlem—and what an important role she played as a ballet teacher who championed Black ballerinas. I hadn’t heard a lot about her during my career—she was on my radar, but not like Raven Wilkinson, for example, whom I had discovered in a documentary on the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and who became one of my closest friends and mentors. As I was doing my research, though, I came to realize what a huge impact Marion had on many Black ballerinas’ stories.
Why did you decide to write the book for young people?
When I started working on this project, I thought it would be more of a history for an adult audience. I spend so much time with Black and brown youth, though, and I started to realize that they are the ones who need this information. They need to know they have a lineage and a history in ballet and that it’s their responsibility to continue it.
What was the writing and editing process like? Did you collaborate with Salena Barnes, the illustrator, to any extent?
Finding the right voice was a challenge. Initially I was just writing down facts about the dancers, but then I began to feel that I wanted it to be personal, and it evolved into being about how these women affected my life, and other people’s lives. In fact, the original title was simply “Black Ballerinas” but as it became more personal, I added the subtitle “My Journey to Our Legacy” to show that the book is about these ballerinas’ impact on me. I didn’t do any formal interviews; I relied on my own experiences and stories told by other dancers I know. I dug through old emails and even old voice mails that I had saved. I wanted the stories to be my perspective on these ballerinas.
I did a lot of writing, and then I sent all the material to Alyson. And for the editing process, instead of going back and forth on email, we decided to do “live” editing, on Zoom. She and I would get together with her assistant and with Gilda and the four of us would read out loud and make suggestions and changes that way. I really feel that the end result is very much my voice, telling the stories of these women interwoven with my experiences.
I was very fortunate in being able to choose from an array of illustrators, and Salena Barnes came up pretty quickly as our choice. We wanted a person of color and Salena understands Black bodies so well, and dancers’ proportions. There really wasn’t much back and forth on the illustrations; she got most of them on the first try.
You focus on Black ballerinas; do you believe Black men in ballet face similar issues?
Oh yes! I’ve mentored many young Black male dancers and it’s such a difficult journey for them. At ABT I learned so much about how to communicate and interact from the Black men who came and went—there isn’t a single Black male dancer who has stayed throughout my career with the company. I learned how to navigate through white space from the Black male dancers. But it felt important to me to concentrate on ballerinas, because ballet is so much about the ballerina; the male dancers are usually there to support the ballerinas. There is also so much more opportunity for Black men in ballet because we always need more men in ballet; there are never enough men.
Other dance forms—modern, jazz, tap, hip-hop—don’t seem to have the same issues of colorism and racism as ballet does. Why do you think it has been so prevalent in ballet?
Ballet is different from other dance forms in being extremely specific as to form and style, and especially as to what ballet bodies should look like. It originated in Europe and whoever is in charge has always held the key to what the bodies dancing ballet will look like. Balanchine really set the tone in this country for ballerinas being tall and skinny with small heads and long straight hair. In doing so, he put great limitations on the art form and its artists by focusing on this rather than on the stories we can tell through our dancing.
Do you believe there has been progress in the 21st century when it comes to racism and colorism in ballet?
I do. I’m a very hopeful person. I will say that throughout my 25-year career in ballet, I have seen more progress in the past year and a half than in all the preceding years. The world has had a kind of reckoning that has had an impact on ballet as well. But we have so far to go! Ballet is so far behind every other art form in this regard.
Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy by Misty Copeland. Aladdin, $19.95 Nov. 2 ISBN 978-1-5344-7424-6