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Along the way to becoming a barrier-breaking ballet dancer, Misty Copeland spent most of her formative years navigating a white-dominated industry that she said called into question her physical features and aspects of her craft.
Even with those hurdles, Copeland credits her mentors for insulating her from the racial dynamics of ballet and instilling the confidence that laid the foundation for numerous feats, including becoming the American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) first African-American female principal dancer.
At this juncture in her storied career, Copeland wants to pave a similar path for aspiring Black ballerinas.
She has done so through the Misty Copeland Foundation. For nearly a year, the nonprofit has set out to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in dance via free classes for students living in marginalized communities.
“I have different communities that I’m a part of [and] the dance community is one of those communities. There’s [also] the Black community and there’s the communities that I grew up in,” Copeland told The Informer.
“There seems to be such a disconnect [with] this European art form palette. What does that mean for us and the Black community? How is that ours?” she continued. “Ballet is this baseline [and] incredible way of giving children the ability to express themselves to challenge themselves, physically, mentally and emotionally.”
On the evening of May 24, Copeland participated in a conversation at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Northwest about the importance of mentorship and advocacy in achieving success. For a couple of hours, she graced the stage with Melonie D. Parker, vice president and chief diversity officer at Google, and veteran actress Phylicia Rashad, who served as a moderator.
Decades before becoming dean of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University, Rashad completed her undergraduate studies at the local HBCU and joined its chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. From that point, she amassed a bevy of television and theatrical acting, singing and director credits, including “The Cosby Show,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Fences.” In 2010, the NAACP named Rashad “The Mother of the Black Community.”
Parker, an alumna of Hampton University, has facilitated a slew of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at Google that connects HBCU students navigating the tech field and young people living in marginalized communities to coding experts. She told the Informer that Black female representation has increased at the company and her team is on its way to meeting a 2025 goal of a 30% increase in leadership from underrepresented groups.
On Wednesday, Parker and Copeland weighed in on the current state of affairs as it relates to further placing Black women into corporate and artistic spaces. Parker credited the Crown Act as a milestone for Black women who’ve struggled to wear natural hair in the office. Both women also touted the importance of sisterhood and alliances with other affinity groups, particularly Black men.
Audience members had a chance to purchase copies of Copeland’s memoir, “The Wind at My Back,” which chronicled Copeland’s friendship with the late Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company.
The release of Copeland’s memoir follows that of “The Firebird,” a children’s book that was inspired by her relationship with Wilkinson, along with two autobiographies and a documentary.
By the time Copeland became ABT’s first African-American principal dancer in 2015, she had two decades of ballet experience under her belt. Throughout her career, Copeland clinched several accolades, including the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award, given to the best dancer in Southern California.
While with ABT’s Studio Company, Copeland rose through the ranks, starting out as a member and eventually becoming a corps de ballet and soloist. In her years as a soloist, Copeland experienced what experts described as maturation into “a more contemporary and sophisticated dancer.”
While Copeland, Rashad and Parker took time to celebrate their wins accumulated as Black women, they acknowledged more needed to be done institutionally so more Black women can secure opportunities.
“We’ve made tremendous strides, but there are so many more strides for Black women in particular to make in corporate spaces,” Parker said.”This is where representation matters. You need more Black women in the spaces to understand, educate and put the right processes, policies and approaches in place so that we can bring more people into it. There’s still a fair bit of opportunity here.”