Those of you who know me know that I have always a been a “tell it like it is”, pull no punches kind of gal, hence my moniker T’ruth, (As in Theresa Ruth…) It is in a sense my purpose by birth to bring truth forward. So in the penning of the The Misty-rious Case of the Vanishing Ballerinas of Color: Where have all the Others Gone? where I questioned who is to “blame” for the erasure of other Black Ballerinas, and the abysmal archiving of the contributions of Blacks in ballet/dance over all, I had to equally look at my actions, or non-actions.
It was not just enough for me to drop this “bomb” on the community and then say “Well what are you gonna do about it?” I had to act. I partnered with Phil Chan of Flatt Magazine and together we launched:
We believe that improving representation for Black dancers brings diversity, thereby enriching the entire ballet community. A lack of dynamic, accessible and engaging materials (videos, photos, stories, archives) and a lack of accurate historical information might suggest a lack of Black dancers and audience members. How many young dancers and potential dance lovers have turned away, believing this art is not for them?
The story of Blacks in ballet is integral to the
story of dance. By creating a digital platform that compiles this less-known oral history in one apolitical online location, MOBB seeks to make this rich history accessible and inspiring by creating high-quality content, promoting larger discussions within the dance community, and providing a platform and role models for emerging Black dancers. Our intention is to not only tell the stories of African Americans in ballet but also the stories of dancers of African decent internationally; we believe that improving representation for Black dancers brings diversity, enriching the entire ballet community.
We have moved the roll call over to the Museum, where you can now add affiliations and biographies so that it becomes a living archive. I think that is super exciting.
I am so excited and terrified of this project!! I understand the importance of preserving our history and telling our stories, and I will will try to do it justice. I am so thrilled that we have some of the elders, the gatekeepers behind us, Joan Myers Brown (of Philadelphia Dance Company) Judith Jamison (Artistic Director Emerita of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) Denise Sunders Thompson (Chairperson/Executive Director of the International Association of Blacks in Dance). Melanie Person (Former DTH er and Co-director of the Ailey School)
We are presently actively seeking funding. We are following the model of a brick and mortar museum and asking YOU to become a contributing member to help us get this work done!! to learn more about becoming a member click here
I am so looking forward to being able to bring you our first Exhibition!!!
Please share this news with as MANY people as possible!
Misty Copeland has become a household name as a standout dancer for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre company. Although she is often billed as the ABT’s first African-American soloist, Copeland acknowledges that she is actually the second and that the overlooked Nora Koito Kimball-Mentzos was the first to achieve the feat. Continue
The piece features an audio clip of the Tom Joyner show. That’s incredible. But what I find intriguing is that while acknowledging Kimball’s achievement, it comes through Copeland. Joyner reads:
“According to Copeland, Kimball a black woman also of Asian decent achieved the feat first””.
It is wonderful that Misty is giving back to the community by giving back (by name) some dance history. I am sure that in the coming months we will see a lot more African American Ballerina’s acknowledged and honored by name…. (wink)
If you have ever taken my class you might be familiar with this phrase:
“The Problem is not in your body, it’s in your head.”
I have always been a thinking dancer, I have always loved trying to solve the puzzle of the body, finding the connections between steps and techniques, I think it’s fascinating that you can shift one thing and everything can change in an instant. As a teacher I promote thinking as a way of not only improving but taking accountability and ownership of the information and for your development. The truth is that once you get to a certain level as a dancer you actually have enough information to solve most problems or issues you are encountering on your own. You just have to learn how to diagnose the problem and prescribe the right dosage of adjustments, that’s really what teachers do. So thinking is paramount, but that having been stated, where our minds can help us they can also be the roots of our problems. From telling us we are not good enough, and undercutting our efforts, our mind can be like a mean girl (boy) bully. That is when we have to wrangle it and get it under control.
If you are having trouble executing something it the problem may not be what you are physically doing, but how you are thinking about doing it.There is a simple truth the mind tells the body what to do; it really doesn’t work the other way around. The brain is the original computer, it has the capability of taking in information, storing it, recalling it, applying it all in a matter of seconds. But in order to get the correct results, we have to put accurate information in! If you put the wrong directions into your car’s GPS then you will end up in the wrong place. The mind is the GPS of the body, theoretically if you put the right directions in, you will end up in the right place. Learning combinations, understanding the technical elements and intentions within it, as well as the dynamics and musicality of the elements are all part of the directions that you have to input into the GPS of your mind. As clear as you are about all of these points the clearer your execution will be. A great example of this is the building of a complicated petite allegro. If you can’t say the exercise in rhythm, chances are you won’t be able to physically execute the exercise, whereever you verbally stumble when reciting the steps in the exercise is probably where you will physically falter.
There are a few reasons why the mind becomes a hindrance instead of a help.
Focus/Attention– it is always easy to read where someone’s focus is when they are dancing. It’s not magic, it’s actually quite obvious. Let’s use the example of pirouettes- tell a dancer to do a double pirouette, they prepare and turn, they whirl around and probably manage a double revolution. They turn, perhaps the position is not so great and the landing is a bit bumpy but they get around. Why? Because they are focusing on the turn, so they do in fact turn, but is it a pirouette? Well that’s another story. It clear that the focus is on the revolution because that’s what happened, they turned, but what doesn’t happen in the turn speaks of where their focus isn’t. Now change the focus to the actual position that you turn in (let’s say passé) or the idea of balancing and staying up in the turn, perhaps you focus on the way you are going to come out of the turn and when you try it again something will shift. When you take you focus off of the idea of turning (because in truth both the mind and the body fully understand “turning”) and put it on “how” the turn is arrived at and the energy and attention shifts. When some of the things that were unattended get attention and activate, the pirouette will start to show up.
From class to class, combination-to-combination, step-to-step we have to constantly re-focus our minds to give attention to what is important in that moment. Sometimes it’s in the body i.e. the arms, the back, the connecting step but other times it can be the musicality, the rhythm or the quality (breath) of the steps. The most difficult part of properly focusing the mind is the fact that it does not leave space for our indulgence. Often times what we really need to focus on is that last thing we want to think about- because it’s challenging, tedious, or just doesn’t feel good, so we want to don’t deal with it, and hope that somehow it will go away or no one will see it. Think about it, people with gorgeous feet or flexibility spent most of their time pointing their feet and stretching, never mind that they have weak abdominals, or have no jump – you will seldom see them strengthening their core before class. Likewise you can bank on finding people who are turners or jumpers twirling and leaping all over the studio at 8:30 in the morning before class- forget that they have an abysmal port-de-bras. They do it because it feels good, it looks good, and working on what isn’t working is—well work! We have commit to being less indulgent and more intent on putting our attention our focus to what needs work so that we can enjoy our nature blessing guilt free! When we handle problems they cease to be problems, avoidance is not a solution.
Intention- This is a huge one. Often times I will ask a student “What are you thinking when you do that?” This is often met with a blank stare like “What? What am I thinking?” If we continue with the concept that your mind is the GPS of your body then there are times when we think we don’t need directions or assistance, we think that because we have “driven home” a million times we can get there with our eyes closed. We go on automatic pilot. There is a tendency to check out when we do things that we think we know, we have done plies and tendus hundreds of thousand of times so we go on automatic pilot, but that’s like driving home with out looking at the stoplights, you are on route but it’s just not a great idea, it’s dangerous. Intention and focus are linked. You have to think about what it is that you want to achieve, experience, or accomplish with each exercise, a goal of sorts, and this will create/determine a direction for your focus. Moving without intention is just that, moving, dancing requires a high level of coordination, and integration, of technique, artistry, musicality, muscularity, breathe, rhythm, special awareness and more. Applying intention and focus requires a high level of mental engagement, think about it, if your mind tells your body what to do, then after a day of dancing you should not only be physically tired but mentally exhausted as well.
Clarity and Intention- One of the biggest ways the mind (not the body) can be the problem is when you simply have a misconception about what it is that you are trying to do. If you have the wrong idea of what you are trying to do, even with intention and focus you will not get the desired result. Sometimes you have the wrong idea of what you are meant to be doing- i.e. ronde de jambe en l’air, you might be thinking that you are trying to make a circle with the leg- after all that is what it looks like at first sight, but the reality is different (only the lower leg moves, you are making the letter D) once you know the particulars you can better work towards it. Likewise sometimes we have the wrong idea about what part (s) of the body do certain things, i.e. when we think “pull up” or use the abdominals a lot of times the ribs open- when really one has nothing to do with the other, or when we use our port- de-bras and back becomes involved (like in grand plié and as the arm comes to first position the back bows over) perhaps because we think of the phrase “use the arms from the back” which is true but that does not mean that the back becomes sympathetic to the action. We have to learn to be clear about the actual action we are doing and which parts of the body are actually involved in getting it done.
This goes into another issues, the misconception of dancing the “feeling of the step” Now this sounds like what we as artist should be doing but in actuality it’s not. Take arabesque- or what I like to call “Fling-abesque” where the air is sky high with no real direction, or balancés with flowery formless arms. These are prime examples of dancing the “feeling” of step. Pique Arabesque has a beautiful oppositional length from the tip of the fingers to the tip of the toe, it looks like there is so much freedom that there is a “Whack” but that is not the reality of what you are trying to do. Likewise balancés look floating and flowery, but there are clear pathways for the arms. The movement of the and back looks greater than it actually is due to the coordination of the movement of the step and the changing of the arms and head, but it does not swing. So the question of “What am I really trying to do?” In a technical sense, and “What am I trying to do? – What am I thinking about?” becomes important as it informs you as to what your intention and focus, the directions that your GPS gives to your body.
As dancers we are physical beings and there is so much emphasis on what we can or can’t do physically sometimes we forget that there are other ways of getting things accomplished. There is definitely a time to think and a time to feel but the best dancers (people) are able to find a balance between the two.When you have been pushing with the body and have hit a plateau, or feel blocked, try to shift your focus, attention, or intention to another area of the work, pull back on the physicality and try to approach the work from a different mental perspective and there might be a shift, or at the very least you can lessen your frustration and get work done on another level (mentally, artistically) it’s all valid and necessary. This is also important when we are working with an injury, or we are physically tired (a time when we are prone to becoming injured). This does not mean that you are not physically working; it just means that your working with a different intention- you work fully but just putting attention in a different place.
Give it a try, and remember this to is just one possibility, it has worked for me, it may work for you!
There is something about Misty. For the last 2 years there has been a swell of interest and intrigue surrounding the petite, honey hued young woman from California who rose quickly through the ranks of the American Ballet Theater and landed firmly (some say too much so) at Soloist. She is currently poised to be the first African American female Principle dancer in the prestigious 75 year old company. Though she is not the first to rise to her current ranking (there was Nora Kimball in the Mid ’80’s) she would be if she reached the pinnacle of Principal. This may well be Misty’s time, as she is currently preparing for 3 Major Principal roles which may well determine whether she will reach her goal and make HERstory.
One of the things that people are fascinated with is her abundance of facility. When you see her in photos and on stage there is no mistaking her eye catching beauty, or the exaggerated presence of all of the physical attributes that the dance world moons over, the hyper extended legs, the hyper flexible extension, the hyper supple feet and back. Everything about Misty’s dancer facility is Hyper or EXTREME, however she as a woman is contrary. She is pulled together, focused and a quiet force to be reckoned with. You don’t get to be a soloist a ABT without having some grit!
As beautiful as hyper mobility may be, the reality is that it takes a great deal of strength and mastery to manage it all. I wanted to hear how she dealt with it as a young dancer and what she does to maintain her body to keep it healthy and injury free. Her womanliness is also a running issue though only 5’2 and slight of build she has breasts, a booty, and muscular legs because of this she is considered “Curvy” in the world of ballet. I wanted to know what puberty was like for her? When her body begin to change? and how did she manage it? How did it effect her (the response was very interesting). I wanted to know how she feels about her body today.
Then of course there is her “blackness” as it is one of the reasons why she has garnered so much attention, she will enters the Obama-like territory of being a first. We spoke about the cultural isolation that she endures daily that is a part and parcel of being a ballet dancer of color. In the world of ballet you are often the only- or one of a few during your years of training, and should you dance professionally you are likely to be on your own. She speaks highly and often of her mentors and previous trailblazers (Raven Wilkinson) in whom she has found comfort, support, and strength (they did it and survived). This is a weight that most of her co-workers do not share.
The truth is she is just a girl who wanted to be a ballerina she didn’t set to be a pioneer in Pointe shoes. But she she is and she gets it- all of it, the importance, the history, the responsibility and expectations, and she is has taken it on, albeit she is very clear that this path she is on is one her own, one she chose for herself, the rest is a cultural by-product. She does it for her own personal reasons but accepts the cultural and racial “responsibilities” that comes with it: the spotlight, being a spokesperson, a mentor, a beacon of hope and possibility for young dancers of color etc.
Prior to our interview I had never met Misty though I had seen her perform. She looked much taller and very grand on stage I was taken aback at how petite and unassuming she was in person. I, being a black ballet dancer, and having my own experience of that world, have always felt concomitantly protective and responsible of and for her. Perhaps it is the knowledge of the isolation, and the coded inferences she experiences that makes me protective, even though I didn’t know her. I so wanted for her to be smart, and aware and on top of it, for the cause (one black power fist in the air)…
Well, let me tell you I had nothing at all to worry about, she is as magnetic and ebullient in person as she is on stage, she is delightful and though petite, she is powerful and self possessed, a woman, not a little girl. Her voice is strong but not loud, it is subtly commanding, she does not mince words, but is respectful and cautious with them. She chooses her words and tone very carefully. She is adroit at this, as these are skills she must not doubt use every day. She is clear, focused and grounded. She is confident yet humble and ultimately self defined. There is a great moment we shared (part 4) where she shares some experiences where I think she learned that you must know, and remember who you are, otherwise the words of others will have the power to define you if you are not careful. I was awed by her generosity, that even in these very crucial moments in her career she steadily makes herself available to speak to youngsters to inspire and mentor, and has personally taken a handful of young dancers under her wing.
I went into the interview of course wanting to know how she has achieved so much in such a short period of time, but there was something in me that wanted to get a better sense of who she was as a woman, I wanted to humanize her, to make her more then the poster girl, or Youtube clip to the young dancers who idolize her facility alone. I wanted to present the totality of who she is because THAT is what makes her an artist… That’s it, I wanted to give voice to her Artist, I wanted to hear her story… and she shared with me…
I have to thank her for that, her words her story will no doubt inspire, aid and encourage all who hear it.
I have to say that today I am not only a fan of Misty the Ballerina, but of Misty the Woman.
There was an undeniable crackle in the air on the evening of June 12, 2012 at the Metropolitan Opera House. Soloist Misty Copeland was poised to dance her New York City debut in the title role of the Firebird in American Ballet Theater’s decadent new production choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. The energy of the lobby was charged, but the most notable difference was the overall hue of the theatregoers that particular evening. A cornucopia of sepia-toned people dressed in their Sunday best came from far and wide to support Copeland in this triumph. Professional dancers from all genres were as giddy as the little brown ballet students who had come to glimpse what could be their future. Even those who would normally put out their left eye before sitting through a night at the ballet had come to watch. Though the first half of the program was stellar, we all “endured” it, and the seemingly unending intermission, anxiously awaiting the first chords of Stravinsky’s haunting score and the rising of the curtain revealing the history-making moment.
It was back in 2009 that Copeland’s star began to shimmer more brightly, with the help of musical genius Prince. He featured her in his Crimson and Clover video and then made her his “muse”, and affluent African-American ABT supporters championed her cause. With newfound visibility and support, Copeland began to gain well-deserved recognition. Two years prior, New York Times writer Gia Kourlas posited a well-formed question in her article entitled Where are all the Black Ballerinas?. The article sparked great debate. Round tables and forums were assembled to discuss the extinction of the species. Copeland was the perfect answer to that very question, because if artistic director Kevin McKenzie were to promote her to the rank of principal, she would be the First African-American female in history to hold that position. There is much talk of “history” making when it comes to Misty, such that Copeland has become herself like a Firebird, a mythical creature, one so rarely glimpsed that it is hard to prove that it even exists.
Let us take a moment to deconstruct the construction of “The Myth” itself. The crafting of a myth is a curious thing. The very first ingredient you need to ensure that your myth has a place to bed is the inherent lack of something, a longing, a void that needs so desperately to be filled that people are willing to do or believe anything to fill it. The desperation is so great that they pay little attention to what is filling it, but focus only on the joy that the desire has been sated. With that established, we can now begin. The way to ensure the stability of your myth is to base it in a pinch of truth. It matters little how aqueous it might be; after all, this truth is merely a structure through which a bit of fantasy will be woven, such that you can hardly tell where the original truth begins and the other ends. It is the blurring of borders with material akin to the authentic matter, but with just a bit of shimmer added to distract the viewer from the transition. A proper balance of plausibility and sparkle must be present for a myth to take hold and thrive, just a pinch. It must be just real enough, and just fantastic enough, to be magical. One must be entranced, bewitched. It must feel comfortable and oddly familiar at once, so as not to evoke a questioning of the tale. Hence, it is not just the teller who must be committed. The listener must also agree to suspend disbelief. The two parties are complicit in giving the myth weight, thus anchoring the tale to the ground.
The mythologization of Misty was not born of mendacity. Quite the opposite. By all accounts, its nascent root is somewhat altruistic. What could be the problem with giving little brown girls who want to be ballerinas someone to look up too? Nothing at all, although it is the “oneness” that has become problematic, except that as awareness of Copeland grew (as did her endorsements), others in the field, both present and past, were muffled and then muted, until their existence was being slowly smudged away. It’s true (the grain of truth) that for a long period of time, the presence of the black ballerina has been all but nonexistent. It is important to note that in 2007, when Kourlas wrote the article Where are all the Black Ballerinas?, it had already been 3 years since The Dance Theatre of Harlem had disbanded. Subsequently, the nest that had begotten a great number of ballerinas of color had been effectively swatted from the tree. Those dancers that were left all scattered. Now, due to the inherent racism in the ballet world (I said it, we know it, it’s real, we are big enough to call it for what it is), few of them found ballet companies willing to hire them. Alas, some went to Broadway or to contemporary companies. Many landed at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where you can still see them performing today. Some ventured to Europe. The point is, there were black ballerinas. Dance Theater of Harlem was like a hothouse for them. Dancers of color were drawn to it like sailors to a siren’s song. There was a deep and fecund history of them before Misty was born, and before she became a household name, but you would never know it by the way the narrative is being written. When DTH’s company closed, it was like the Men in Black pushed the pen light. All was forgotten. The truth behind the myth is that Misty is walking on a path that, though overgrown from lack of use, was cleared before her – but you would never know it (unless you know it).
The truth behind the myth is that Misty is walking on a path that, though overgrown from lack of use, was cleared before her, but you would never know it (unless you know it)
The mythologization of Copeland’s story, her journey and the glorification of her achievements (which have been great and many) are not the problem. She deserves the accolades. The issue is that when the narrative assigns Copeland with the title of “only”, and often “first” in many instances, it is inaccurate. Here is where the construction of the myth kicks in. It is inaccurate, either by the omission of those who have come before or by the length of time since the previous nameless person achieved said goal. The effect has been to bury a long line of African American Ballerinas that preceded her. There are many, but seldom are their names and achievements acknowledged when we are talking about African-American females in Ballet. Presently it is all Misty all the time; it is a great PR machine at work. The truth is that Misty may well be the “only” in her time, but the way the narrative is being written today, you would think that she was the first, and the only ever, that she is blazing an unmarked trail, and because she has become the “face” of the “Black ballerina” for this generation, people believe it to be true.
The truth behind the myth is that Misty is walking on a path that, though overgrown from lack of use, was cleared before her, but you would never know it unless you know it. There is a sort of erasure that is taking place. It is quite easy to do, as much of African-American history is written from a revisionist perspective if it is recorded at all. If we as a people do not keep the records, who will? Seldom does white America come into the stacks of our archives (except for one month a year which is designated for a cursory lesson of the vast and far reaching contributions of African-Americans) to learn of our history, which is American history . When it comes to dance history, and ballet specifically, there is even less interest and knowledge of that history. Therefore, it has been both harder to preserve and easier to alter, or eradicate.
Over the past 5 years we have seen the meteoric rise of Misty Copeland, and although her Q rating has gone up, her ranking at the American Ballet Theater has not. Here is where the mythology starts to show some fissures. When Copeland began to gain some support for her singular (and duly deserved) position at ABT, there was a campaign of sorts launched. “Get the word out about this girl! She could do what has never been done, she might be able to be the first African American Female Principal of ABT!” That is the first granule of truth. Copeland was and is still poised to make history if and when promoted. However, when the PR machine got started, Copeland’s Wikipedia page cited her as being the first African-American Female Soloist in the history of ABT. This is untrue. She is in fact the third to hold this ranking (admittedly an abysmally low number overall), having been preceded by Anne Benna Sims in the 1970’s and Nora Kimball in the mid-80s.
Two decades is a long time. Some might say “It might as well be a first.” For almost 2 generations of dancers it is, but in reality it is not. There were two women in the American Ballet Theater who were the “Misty Copeland’s” of their day. In the 70’s or 80’s they were the ones little brown girls went to the ballet to see, their eyes searching frantically for a glimpse of themselves on stage. If you had seen or been inspired by either one of them and their artistry, you would take issue with their omission. I can recall being mesmerized by Nora Kimball, who was like a mythical creature on stage (I saw her dance when she was with the Frankfurt Ballet). She was beauty in motion, but as a woman she was….breathtaking. For me it was Debra Austin, who was a Principal dancer at the Pennsylvania Ballet in the 80’s where she danced roles in Swan Lake, Coppelia, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Giselle and La Sylphide. As a young student I would watch her in rehearsal, mouth agape.
(*Ms. Copeland’s page has since been amended to reflect that she is in fact the fourth African-American soloist (and third female) at ABT.)
That having been stated, if you were to Wikipedia Anna Benna Sims of Nora Kimball you would be left wanting for information. That might be partly due to the eras in which they danced. We are in an age where every action, both banal and noteworthy, is documented equally. Both women danced in a time where creating video was not as easy as whipping out a cell phone and posting. Back in the day, archiving was an actual job that required a degree, and it was done as a means of preservation, not marketing and self promotion as is typical today. Their stories have not been scanned and uploaded, they might be uninterested, or daunted by the task, and no one else has has done so. Thus like a photograph in time, the images begin to fade, fade, fade away…
These women were also pioneers. They wielded the first axes to cut down the redwoods of racism and disbelief in a time when it was much harder to do. For them to be overlooked is unconscionable, not just for African-American dance history, but for American history period. To her credit, Copeland herself has consistently credited the groundbreaking accomplishments of her mentor Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to dance with the Ballet Russe, who in 1955 had been inspired by Janet Collins, the first African-American to dance with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Prior to Collins joining the Met, she had been accepted into the Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo, but declined the invitation as she was asked to paint herself white to appear on stage.
Beyond Wilkinson, Copeland and journalists alike have seldom by name, acknowledged those who have actually walked her path, as a result both Sims, Kimball, have been reduced to less than footnote in the history they wrote, and have all but been forgotten except those who witnessed their endeavors.
Let us go back to the evening of Copeland’s Firebird debut, and see how the myth was strengthened, the New York Daily New stated:
“But in June 2012 — when Copeland became the first black ballerina in history to dance the lead in “The Firebird” for a major classical ballet company, composer Igor Stravinsky’s breakthrough work”
Though this statement is true in part, in ways it is grossly incomplete, especially when we are talking about African-American ballerinas and making history. You see, on Jan. 12, 1982, Dance Theatre of Harlem debuted a new production of “The Firebird” at New York City Center featuring Stephanie Dabney as the Firebird. She went on to perform as the Firebird at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles — and around the world.
Now there might questions as to whether or not DTH can be considered a “classical” ballet company, “neoclassical” or even a “major” ballet company, given its standing today (after disbanding in 2004, the company was recently rebooted in 2009 and is fighting its way back). However in the 80’s the company was in it’s heyday, and stood alongside the likes of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. Its repertoire included many Balanchine works (one of its founders, Arthur Mitchell, was a protege of Balanchine) as well as classical ballets like Giselle and Swan Lake Act II, among others. DTH was a direct reflection of the racial temperament of the times. It was founded in 1969 by Mitchell and Karel Shook in an effort to first, show that African Americans could dance ballet, and more importantly to provide a place for them to dance, as many ballet companies would not employ dancers of color regardless of their ability, especially if they were brown skinned (as we see, we have made little progress through the years).
It is important for all to understand that this is not an attack on Misty Copeland, she is one of our pioneers, and the greatest one of her time, but I am confronting the narrative being crafted around her, and the mythology that is being evoked.
Whether or not you want to include Dance Theatre of Harlem in the category of “classical” or not, the fact that their multi-cultured production of The Firebird that spawned not one but many black Firebirds was not acknowledged by journalists is negligent. Firebird, along with Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, were signature pieces for the company. Stephanie Dabney, Judy Tyrus, Charmaine Hunter, Christina Johnson and Andrea Long (a former member of New York City Ballet for 8 years), were just some of the incredible African-American ballerinas that danced that role, most to critical acclaim. I recall a particular performance at Washington’s Kennedy Center when Charmaine Hunter danced the lead role and received a standing ovation that lasted almost 5 minutes and was suspended in air during the final tableau. I, in my maiden’s costume, was brought to tears by the reception. Is that not worthy of mention?
In America, successful African American’s cannot peacefully co-exist, they have to eclipse.
Dance Theatre of Harlem is the foundation of the long line of African-American ballet dancers that contributed to our now muted legacy. Many alumni have not only gone on to dance for major companies (classical, modern and contemporary) but have graced Broadway stages, choreographed for major companies (classical, modern and contemporary), have worked commercially, and are in the trenches every day training young dancers, some of whom look like them. For these little brown boys and girls, they are a flesh and blood, tangible reminder that their dream is not just a dream, but also a reality. When a teacher that looks like them stands in the front of the room, they are transformed from “other” into likeness. The import of this I cannot express, but if you are a person of color you know what I am speaking of. It is the thing that white people take for granted, that is at the foundation of the feeling that you don’t belong somewhere.
But I digress,
Virginia Johnson, the current artistic Director of DTH and former principal dancer with the company danced the company’s critically acclaimed production of Giselle. DTH’s Co-founder Karel Shook fought for the production. He said “They will never take us seriously as a classical company if we do not dance a classic”, but he insisted that it make sense for a company that looked like Dance Theatre of Harlem. Thus it was set in the Bayou, a Creole Giselle. Brilliant. It is a travesty that this important part of history is virtually unknown and is almost absent on the internet. You cannot Google it, and sadly even Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Wikipedia page is sorely lacking in information (in fact none of the names of the Firebirds mentioned above are cited). On the topic of searching the internet, here is a fun fact. When one searches Sims or Kimball, often Copeland’s name and image come up but both of their Wikipedia pages are sparse. Have we gone back to our African roots, carrying on our history through word of mouth griotism? We cannot afford that. Our information must be on the highway. We can do better, we must do better.
It is important for all to understand that this is not an attack on Misty Copeland, she is one of our pioneers, and the greatest one of her time. What I am confronting is the narrative being crafted around her, and the mythology that is being evoked, and what is being left out of her narrative, that is a part of our history.
I am not here to hate but to educate. In my opinion, Misty is a pawn in the “Room for One” rule that this country subscribes to when it comes to African-Americans in terms of achievement. It occurs in publishing, in Hollywood, in fashion, and the arts and other fields as well. In America, successful African-Americans cannot peacefully co-exist, they have to eclipse. Not to say that there is a full and complete erasure of the former for the up-and-coming, but the pools of resources, opportunities, publicity and most importantly, financing, get diverted away from one and redirected towards another, making it almost impossible for the one to survive, let alone thrive. It is not something that is controlled by the artists themselves. It is driven by the machine of the industry, and susceptible artists often get caught up in it. Unbeknownst to them, their vagus nerve kicks in with that fight or flight instinct .
We saw supermodel Naomi Campbell dominate the scene until Tyra Banks was discovered, and instead of there being space for the both of them (like there was for Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington) the two were pitted against each other. When writer Terry Macmillan burst onto the publishing scene in the 90’s, she was compared to Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison (which is like saying that Jackie Collins is like William Faulkner) There were phrases like “Macmillan, the new Morrison” bandied about. Why? The former’s body of work and achievements aren’t wholly eradicated, but since the number of roles and resources for African-American work is so limited, something often has to give. There is an unspoken double standard in this country. Two time Best Actress Oscar winner Bette Davis (1935/1938) has never been eclipsed by two time Best Actress Oscar winner Meryl Streep (1982/2011). They both hold their rightful place in history, and there is room for both of them.
On April 9th, Copeland reached another milestone in her career when she danced the Odette/Odile role in Swan Lake with the Washington Ballet at the Kennedy Center. Her Prince Siegfried was danced by Brooklyn Mack, also African-American. You would think that surely this is a first. Even Copeland herself thought as much, as she stated:
“I never imagined myself as Odette/Odile…I thought even if I became a principal, this part might not be given to me because no one like me had done it before.”
But wait, African-American principal ballerina Lauren Anderson and Cuban American Carlos Acosta danced these roles at Houston Ballet in 2001. I am certain that it was an oversight on her part, and this goes to my point. When this information is not acknowledged, through time it is forgotten.
In 1990 Lauren Anderson was made principal of Houston Ballet, a major classical ballet company, and was a principal there for 16 years. She is often credited as being the “first” female African American principal of a major company, (however remember Debra Austin in the 80’s at Pennsylvania Ballet, see how tricky it gets?)
Lauren Anderson is a deeply brown-skinned woman, a brown that you cannot wash out with lights; she is clearly a black woman on stage. For her to be cast as the lead in Swan Lake at that time in Texas is truly amazing. When Anderson made history, there was no “branding” machine. There was not the market for endorsements, commercials and reality television as there is today. There was not a group of well-placed, powerful people to champion her cause (though there should have been). It was her in a studio with her ax, chopping away at redwoods, in Houston, Texas of all places. Her name deserves to be somewhere in the history of African-Americans in ballet. It is important to note that when she was making this history, DTH was still in existence. African-American ballerinas were not extinct; they were rare, but not unheard of. Perhaps this is why her achievements were not viewed with the grandeur they deserved.
So who is at fault for the lack of information, abundance of misinformation or omission? Is it Misty? Do we hold her responsible for not constantly acknowledging her sisters in ballet? Is it the PR team that has whipped the myth like Frances Underwood of House of Cards? Is it the journalists lack of due diligence? Are they responsible for driving the narrative? Is it the African-American dance community for not taking care of our own historical archives and keeping our legacy alive and vibrant? I charge all of the above. Yes, Misty could make more of an effort to evoke the names of those who came before her, those who are now in the trenches at ballet schools around this county, and stand in front studios every day as flesh and blood examples to brown girls and boys who have a dream of becoming ballet dancers. Their presence says, “Yes you can, because I did”. But I will say that she has done a great deal, she is out there, the poster child for her generation, and there is a great deal of pressure and expectation placed on her head. This is now a global discussion because of her, and the stance she has taken as a Black woman, and getting the message out there.
*It has been brought to my attention that in the Nelson George documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale” at the end there is a mention of Sims, Kimball and even a picture of Anderson in Swan Lake, and an interview with former ABT member Robyn Gardenhire. Better late than never, but one can’t help but wonder if this is is kind of like the amendment to the Wikipedia page…the “Whoops, people are starting to notice, let’s correct that”. Even if it is, we’ll take it!!! It’s a step in the right direction.
Is it her PR team? Yes, they are working overtime, and they are doing a bang up job, you can’t Google “ballet” and not
get Misty (you can’t Google Nora Kimball and not get Misty). She has endorsements, commercials, billboards, a documentary, a dance wear line, books, she is one of Time Magazine’s most influential 100 (you go girl!). Technically they aren’t paid to be ethical or thoughtful about “the legacy of Blacks in ballet”. They are paid to build, and to cash in on the “legacy of Misty”. We can’t expect much from them.
What about the journalists? Here is where the hammer comes down. Writers need to do their research (and that means going beyond reading the last 5 articles that were written inaccurately on the subject). If you are not a dance writer (and some of them have fallen short too) then look for the information, make a call, ask a question, don’t be (yes, I’ll say it) lazy and indulgent toward your angle. It’s called due diligence. Dance Magazine can do better with featuring artists of color regularly; those we know, and those we should know (broader than just the 25 to watch). Often we see the same faces being featured over and over again. Tell us something we don’t know, tell us something we SHOULD know.
And lastly to the community, yes we are to blame on a level. If we don’t document, protect and herald our history, who do we think is going to do it? Dance Theatre of Harlem, I charge you to put the names of the beautiful artists that helped build the legacy that you are working to live up to and restore, on your Wikipedia page! Why is it that we can name a slew of white ballerinas – Suzanne Farrell, Natalia Makarova, Melissa Hayden, Sylvie Guillem, Heather Watts, Gelsey Kirkland, Darsi Kistler, Alessandra Ferri, Wendy Whelan, (and one does not negate but informs the other)? You can effectively chart ballet’s evolution by connecting their dots. They are all beautiful and talented and have their individual page in history as they should. Most ballet dancers, black, white or other, would have a hard time naming 5 African-American ballerinas, and it is not because they have not existed, it is because they have not been valued and held up in the same way as their white counterparts. Such is the case in America across the board. #blacklivesmatter, #blackcontributionmatters…. WE HAVE DOTS, in the plural not just one, and we need to post them so that we can connect them and reveal the constellation of our history. I wrote this not as a slam to a woman of immense talent, courage, strength and beauty. No I wrote this:
In honor of those sepia-colored pioneers in pointe shoes, I would like us to restore the record, actually present the record, so that all of the little brown girls who dream of being sylphs or swans can know that it is more than possible, not just because one did it but because many have. Where the one can be explained away, chalked up to an anomaly, one hundred is a legacy, rich and multi-hued, with a diversity of economic backgrounds, body shapes, sizes, divergent levels of facility and possibilities. In our history they can find someone who looks like you! I wrote this so little brown girls with fuzzy edges, afro puffs, and braided buns can know that they too have a history, and it is long and strong and cannot, will not, be denied. Your ancestors have done what others have when all was against them, when others thought they could not. They proved them wrong, and went beyond. Your lineage danced on the great stages of the world, for kings, queens, dignitaries, heads of state and global icons. They are YOUR royals. They were here, they ARE here, and though their names may not be shouted or written on high, we will make sure that their names are whispered gently in your ears and etched into your memory, that you will not forget, and that they are not forgotten. Know your history, know yourself.
Let this be an open “Role” call.
In the comment section below please enter your name or the name/s of black ballerina/s who has danced professionally. Please leave the company affiliation(and rank if you like) and any other information you think is important to remember. Everyone’s contribution is valid, and valuable and worthy to be acknowledged.. This is gonna a be fun!!! (if this was sent to you via Facebook, or some other link Please leave your entry on the http://mybodymyimage.com comments to keep them together and as public as possible!)
I am the baby of nine, six girls three boys. I grew up in a flurry of girdles, bras, sweat shields, tampons and sanitary napkins along with belts that held them back in the day. Although there was no real “talk” my mother had with me, I was acutely aware of what would be happening to my body as I developed into a woman. I recall in 6th or 7th grade health class we had the “Menstruation” lesson that came along with a booklet. In the back there was a mail in slip for a kit you could buy complete with pads and a carrier case and some other nonsense that you were to put in the back of your closet in preparation for the grand arrival! I cut the order form out, found an envelope and a stamp and asked my mother for a check. Without much discussion she wrote it out and that was that. My package arrived I put in the back of my closet and waited. I was thirteen at home sick with the flu when my period came. I went to the bathroom and wiped only to come up with bloody tissue to which I responded “shit” then went to retrieve my “Prep” Kit. You see I was banking on what the books said about being active as a girl; the two things that playing sports or dancing might get you were a late starting period and a perforated hymen. Hence the “Shit” response, I was hoping my “womanhood” would show up around 17.
My “Monthly” was never what marked womanhood for me. It was the idea of having breasts. I thought my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. Had I known who Elizabeth Taylor was at the time I would have thought my mother more glamorous than she. My mother was somehow (with nine kids) always flawlessly put together, with matching bags and shoes. She wore gold rings on her fingers and had white, perfectly oblong fingernails. My mother did not have pierced ears and only wore one pair of gold clip on earrings her jeweler made for her. I remember the Lord and Taylor, and Brooks Brothers bags and boxes that her clothes came in. To me she was “woman”. One of the things I loved to do as a little girl was to watch her get dressed. She would take her bath and come back into her bedroom where she would moisturize her body. Taking handfuls of lotion and slathering it on her feet, up her legs, arms, over her belly marked from childbirth and then her breasts. She would go up the undersides of her breasts first and then down the tops of them. She would do this all quite mindlessly, having no idea that in this post ablutionary ritual my concept of what it meant physically to be a woman was being formed. To me this action (the lotioning of the breasts) represented “Woman” I wanted breast to lotion so that I could be a full-fledged bra-wearing member of the clan that dominated my house. Unfortunately I am still wanting for breasts to lotion. Though being physically active as a young girl did little to abate my menstrual cycle (we’ll leave my hymen out of this) it may have played a part in dwarfing my breast development.
The body was never discussed in our home. There were times when my sisters gained weight and there were remarks and jokes made about the ham hock like size of a thigh but as a child I can’t recall anyone ever really “Dieting”. My mother after having nine children wore a size 8 (that’s a 1980’s size eight) when I was 13. I had sisters in every size, weight and color. It was never an issue or a problem. The first time I recall weight – my weight ever being discussed was when I was nine years old and my ballet teacher Yvonne Patterson from Pennsylvania Ballet poked me in the stomach and told my father I was getting “Porky” That one stuck with me because my Father had to recount the story to my Mother and siblings and that became my handle, “Porky”. Where it should have bounced off of me like the ham hocks jokes leveled at my sisters this one landed and stuck mainly because it did not come from my family who though dysfunctional and inappropriate at times I knew loved me and saw such things not as flaws but merely as a truth at the moment. There jibs were never a real judgment of something being “wrong” with me but merely and observation. With Miss Patterson, though it was probably a thoughtless comment made in passing, she did not “love” I doubt if she even thought of me enough to like me. Since our relationship was in the context of ballet class where physical mastery and perfection is the goal, and comparisons both physical and technical are inevitable, it meant more than my stupid brother saying it over the dinner table. It was the first time I ever thought of being or getting fat.
Classical Ballet brought the idea of having to “look” a certain way into my sphere of consciousness and into that of my father (I had a ballet father not mother) It was in his effort to support me in what I wanted that he began to make certain that I was not getting too “porky”. Not so much as in restricting my food or changing my diet but just in making sure that I was aware that the possibility of the “Pork” was dangerously near.
In my home, I have always been the thin one, the fit one; they like to say the one with a models figure. I come from women who are shorter and more zaftig then I am. They could never understand my weight obsession. However there were the girls in my school whose mother’s encouraged and sometimes enforced diets and restrictions on their dancing daughters. Who always took note of a dress size going up, or remarking on hoping their daughter’s breasts don’t get too big or that they didn’t take after “The women on your Father’s side”. My mother was far removed from my dancing and had little to say about my weight unless I was looking too thin, at which time she would try to force food on me, which earned her the title “Food Pusher”.
Slowly I stopped looking towards my mother and sisters as the forms to emulate and started looking at dancers. I was about 11 or 12 when I first learned how to have an eating disorder. And yes I say learned because there are lesson on it given in dressing rooms of dance schools. What to eat, what not to eat, how to restrict your diet without anyone taking notice, (a common one was to become a vegetarian) and how to purge. None of this came from within my household. As I got older I saw that the thinner girls got more attention, often times just for getting – or being thin. Thinner meant better, it meant beautiful. Since I began dancing at the age of three and by eight I had already decided that this was what I was going to do with the rest of my life, at 12 I danced with my first company I hardly noticed that my role models for femininity and body image had been transferred from the women in my family onto women who where the furthest thing from me. The lack of understanding towards my newly adopted aesthetic at home was isolating.
The strangest thing is that in my desire to be a ballet dancer it never occurred to me that I was aspiring to look like something that was the furthest from me – a petite, emaciated white woman. It also never occurred to me that as much as I tried, as thin as I got, I would never look like that. The “that” I refer to is not just a weight thing it’s an aesthetic, it’s the thing that says “ballerina”. I could always dance- My talent and facility as a dancer were never obstacles for me, rather it was when the reality of my Blackness, coupled with my height and musculature clicked that I could no longer see myself as “Ballerina” that was when a little bit of the dream died. I can clearly recall learning the classical variation from Don Quixote and though I was executing it technically proficiently, as I did the final sequence of hops en Pointe I looked at my 5’7, brown, muscular self in the mirror and said “I look ridiculous”. It just looked wrong. I was too big, to strong, not elegant… It was a case of being completely wrong for the thing that in a way I was completely right for.
I find it interesting that I have never really thought about how I created my personal criteria for beauty or the body. I merely moved through the world and collected information and ideas from my experiences, I suppose much the way we all do. However in the process of becoming a teacher and not wanting to perpetuate some of the negative experiences I had onto my students it has made me think very carefully, not only in choosing my words but my teaching tools. In therapy it is said that anything that is wrong with you can be blamed on your parents, well it’s nice to know that both my mother and father are clear on this one!!!! Though in my youth a discussion about body image relative to the field I had chosen might well have been in order, it was the 80’s, we weren’t as sensitive, and analytical as we are now about such things. The question is would it have helped? I ask the question because I am gearing up for our mothers and daughters roundtable discussion this weekend and what we uncover I am certain will be interesting!
The Basics of Dance Class Etiquette(Common Sense)1)Dress appropriately and come prepared.
2) Don’t chew gum or bring food and drinks (a closed water bottle is okay) into the studio.
3) Never wear dance shoes outside the studio or wear street shoes in the studio.
Don’t wear dangling or sharp-edged jewelry.
4) Come to class showered with brushed teeth or freshened breath.
5) Leave your stuff in a dressing room or locker (unless one is not available). Put any sanctioned personal belongings at the back or sides of unused studio walls (never the front).
6) Don’t come late and if you do, enter very quietly.
7) Don’t leave early. If it is a must, talk to the teacher before class. If you need to exit in an emergency (it better be good), exit as quickly and discreetly as possible.
8) Don’t talk while the teacher is talking. Not even whispering to the person next to you.
9) Completely silence and stow your cell phone. Even vibration is often audible.
10) Listen first, then ask relevant questions.
11) Respect the personal space of others.
12) Watch your language, even when you mess up!
13) Don’t “hang” or slouch on the barre or anywhere else, for that matter. Be attentive at all times, especially when waiting for your turn. And never sit down unless you are asked to.Dance Etiquette Next Steps(Habit for Most Dancers)
1) If you are late, don’t apologize until after class. Just wait for the okay from your teacher to enter the dance floor.
Once permission is granted, find an easily accessible or inconspicuous place to warm up or participate.
2) If you are sitting, or sitting out, sit tall. Never lie down.
3) Develop spatial awareness and demonstrate it.
4) Give the instructor space, but not too much space.
5) Avoid the front unless you really know the combination.
6) Refrain from correcting others (that’s the teacher’s job).
7) Don’t quit in the middle… of the room, of the combination, or of the class. Go with the flow if you’re lost or confused. Never stop traffic.
8) Part like the Red Sea when exiting. Don’t cross center or the paths of other dancers.
9) It’s okay to mark combinations while you wait for your turn if you are out of the way.
10) Do not repeatedly leave and then come back in without permission.
11) If you find you have too many questions about something, save them for after class.
12) At the end of class, applaud or thank the instructor and musician (as part of the group)
13 )Don’t visibly yawn or show boredom. You may get away with it in a lecture hall, but not dance class.Etiquette “Deep Cuts” for Dancers(Good to know)
1) Bring a towel to wipe your sweat and germs off the floor or barre.
2) Don’t take a class way above your skill level. If this mistake is already made, do your best, but stay out of the way of other dancers.
3) Never walk out of a class or go sit down because it’s too hard or you feel frustrated. This is considered rude and you are branding yourself as a quitter. I can’t is not in your vocabulary.
4) Applaud for demonstrators.
5) Once you’ve claimed a space in the center or in a group, it’s generally yours for better or worse. But don’t be pushy or try to reclaim a spot if yours gets taken.
6) At the end of class, it’s especially courteous to say thanks to the instructor and musician (one to one).
7) Restrain movement in a crowded class until broken into groups. If you bump into someone, quietly apologize. Don’t make it a big deal.
8) Never give your 2¢ on choreography to a teacher or choreographer unless your opinions have been requested.
9) If you want help with something that will take more than a minute or two, do some research on your own and/or schedule a private lesson with your teacher.
10) Don’t record or photograph anything without permission.
The Queen of Soul wanting to be either an Nurse or a ballet dancer. In this interview with the Wall Street Journal she shares how she studied and was even friends with Dance Theatre of Harlem Founder Arthur Mitchell and how helped her master a step!! She talks about the ballet she did for Clive Davis….
She talks about it around 6:45 check it out!!!
Creating a healthier body image through Acceptance, Appreciation and Respect