At one point during "A Ballerina's Tale," the Misty Copeland documentary airing tonight (February 8) on PBS, we see the history-making principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre gazing up at a banner advertising her performance of "Firebird" at the Metropolitan Opera House. The sign displays a gorgeous photo of Copeland, back arched, flames flowing from her body. "Oh my God, that's a curvy Black woman on the front of the Met," she says with astonishment. "That's me."
According to Brittani Marie, a former ballerina who co-founded Brown Girls Do Ballet (BGDB) with photographer TaKiyah Wallace, Copeland becoming the first Black principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre in June did indeed signal a turning point in ballet. "I think her promotion gives that final boost of confidence for young dancers [of color] who are trying to pursue this as a profession," says Marie during a recent phone interview.
According to its website, BGDB seeks to serve "girls of Hispanic, African, Asian, East Indian and Native American ancestry" in ballet programs. Along with extremely popular Instagram and Facebook accounts, the organization offers annual scholarships, a mentorship network for dancers and photographers, and youth leadership development. Wallace started the organization in 2013 when her daughter, then 3, was the only person of color in her ballet class. She worried about how that would make her daughter feel.
Cofounder Marie certainly experienced isolation during her ballet career. While she was introduced to the art form at age 6 by a Black teacher at a Marshall, Texas Boys & Girls Club, she was often the only person of color in summer dance intensives and other dance spaces.
Despite isolation, she pursued ballet seriously for almost 20 years. This dedication required a lot of her family. "We come from really humble beginnings. We couldn't really afford ballet. So my parents would hold fundraisers for me," says Marie. These financial challenges are common for dancers, and Marie says it's one of the reasons ballet remains so White. ("A Ballerina's Tale" shows Copeland's struggle with poverty, including an anecdote about her family living in a motel when she was 13.)
Rigid aesthetic standards also challenge dancers of color. "Nude" tights and point shoes only match pale skin. And weight and body shape requirements, especially the emphasis on having a "flat back," make ballet difficult for girls who are not skinny.
"As Black girls start to develop, we get a little curvier," says Marie. "Teachers or some of my peers would point out that I was gaining weight. It was hurtful." Copeland was told to lose weight when she joined the American Ballet Theatre. "To me, it's code for you don't have the right skin color," Copeland recently told the Los Angeles Times. "That has been a lot of the minority dancers' experience. They are told they don't have the right body."
Another issue BGDB addresses is what Marie sums up as "you can't be what you can't see." Wallace pushes out beautiful photos of ballet dancers of color on their Instagram and Facebook accounts and BGDB is also recruiting affiliate dance photographers across the country.
A turning point in Copeland's career shown in "A Ballerina's Tale" is when Susan Fales-Hill, the African-American vice-chair of the American Ballet Theatre board, steps in to mentor the young dancer. It's clear that this has a big impact on Copeland, particularly because Fales-Hill introduces her to a number of other Black women pioneers in different fields. BGDB is hoping to offer similar mentorship to the girls in their organization.
"I think it's very important for young girls to have a mentor or a role model figure in their life outside of their home," says Marie. You need someone to guide you along the way, and for women of color, it's a little bit more difficult because we are minorities and it's harder for us to build relationships and get that guidance."
Marie stopped dancing toward the end of her college career. She says she misses it more than anything but sees her work with BGDB as having a bigger impact. "My role in ballet right now is making it more accessible for more young girls and providing them the resources to do it," she says. While BGDB does a lot of work with corporate brands and private studios, Marie and Wallace see their work as activism, says Marie. "I think the way I define activism is taking initiative to promote change and interrupt the system that is in place but isn't really fair. If you constantly see a White parade of dancers for so many decades, the perception is that it's 'not for me.'"