Misty Copeland is unstoppable this month: In addition to releasing a buzzy new line of super-pretty activewear, designed in collaboration with Under Armour, she also sat down with Refinery29 for an in-depth interview, discussing everything from diversity in ballet to her take on fitness trends like barre classes.
Though ballet has come a long way from its early days, New York City Ballet corps member, Olivia Boisson—one of the handful of black dancers in the industry—says there's still plenty more that can be done to promote diversity within the art form. Boisson got real about her experience in an article for Women's Health, which discusses everything from Boisson's early training to her work with NYCB.
"I had a unique path to dance," says Nardia Boodoo, a luminous, elegant apprentice with The Washington Ballet. She briefly studied ballet as a child, but didn't start serious training until she was 14 years old, attending Baltimore School for the Arts. "I didn't know what a pirouette was," she says. "I would wake up really early to stretch and remember my corrections." But, a focused student, she advanced quickly: Soon she was attending prestigious summer intensives, and she earned a spot in The Washington Ballet Studio Company in 2014. Now, Boodoo is working with her childhood idol, TWB artistic director Julie Kent, and dreams of someday dancing the title role in Giselle.
Boodoo is acutely aware of the power of representation. "It has only recently become OK to have a Misty Copeland," she says. "It's no longer socially acceptable to only have girls who look exactly the same, in any aspect of entertainment. But at the same time it feels like a trend, and I'm not a trend, I'm a human being." Boodoo wants to see genuine diversity, from top to bottom. "You need teachers and directors, ballet masters and répétiteurs," she says. "Diversity on every single level is progress."
As a student at Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy, American Ballet Theatre corps member Erica Lall saw iconic former Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson on a regular basis. "I think I assumed her position as an African-American principal dancer was a one-time thing," Lall says. "Lauren became a principal in 1990. Why aren't there dozens of brown swan queens now?" In 2013, when Lall came to NYC for the ABT summer intensive, she registered for two weeks at Dance Theatre of Harlem. "I wanted to experience ballet in an environment where I could feel comfortable and proud of my brown skin," she says. "But I didn't have to wait, because I found acceptance at ABT right away."
Lall, who counts her colleague Copeland as a role model, is proud to be the first recipient of the Josephine Premice Fales/ABT Project Plié award, which allowed her to pursue training at ABT. "The award is one of my greatest inspirations to work relentlessly," she says. But, she adds, "the last thing I want to hear is that my talent was secondary to the need to add color." Those who've seen her ebullient, expressive dancing onstage with the company know she needn't worry.
In 2011, after dancing with American Repertory Ballet and Nashville Ballet, Rachael Jones had decided to retire her ballet shoes. At that point, she was a sophomore at Florida State University, planning to major in political science and international affairs and to work for the State Department when she graduated.
But then another black ballerina changed Jones' path. A message from former New York City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer Andrea Long-Naidu popped up on Jones' Facebook page. "I was in shock that a woman who I had admired for so much of my life was looking at my profile," Jones says. "She told me she saw something very special in me, and that I should be sharing my gift, that I should be dancing." The two began corresponding regularly, with Long-Naidu offering encouragement and advice. Once Jones graduated, she accepted a contract with The Washington Ballet. "To this day, I will never be able to thank Andrea enough for that first message," Jones says. "I don't know that I would have returned to ballet without her generosity or persistence."
The Snellville, GA, native has been with BalletMet since 2016, and is known for her powerful presence and dynamic technique. She's also giving back to other young dancers through her work with Brown Girls Do Ballet. "When I went to summer intensives, I was usually the lone brown ballerina in my group," says Jones. "And I grew up pre–social-media, so it was definitely a struggle to feel so obviously different from my peers. I would have loved for there to have been something like BGDB when I was growing up."
The answer to Canton, MI, native Precious Adams' ballet dreams lay abroad. Adams studied at the National Ballet School of Canada (relatively near her home in Michigan), and eventually her desire to seek out the best possible training led her even further afield, to the Monte Carlo Ballet's Princess Grace Academy, and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
When Adams went to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to dance at the 2007 Dance Open master classes, the experience was a little bit of a shock. Despite seeing few other dancers of color throughout her training, in Russia, Adams felt like her race was really visible. "It was the first time I felt like, 'Oh, I'm black and maybe that might not be a good thing in this profession,' " she says. "Despite that realization, I was even more determined to pursue my dreams."
Adams won the Prix de Lausanne in 2014, and an offer from English National Ballet followed. Her ultra-refined classical technique has helped her dance everything from La Sylphide to William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated to Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring. And, thanks in part to Copeland, Adams believes that assumptions about black women and black dancers are starting to change. "After all," she says, "when people are excluded, talent is wasted."
There's a serenity and ease to every one of Miranda Silveira's movements. Even in a lightning-fast classical variation, her port de bras is effortlessly liquid.
Growing up in Barcelona, Spain, Silveira excelled at everything from hip hop to tap to contemporary. She moved to Madrid at 14 to start getting serious about ballet at the Real Conservatorio Profesional de Danza Mariemma. At 16, she accepted a full scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School—with less than a week's notice. "It was hard moving 5,000 miles from home to suddenly start a new life," Silveira says. But she relied on ballet to pull her through: "The rhythm of everyday classes, and knowing it was a good step for my future, kept me going."
Silveira became an apprentice with San Francisco Ballet in 2013, and joined the corps in 2014. Since then, she's built a varied repertory, including featured roles in several full-length story ballets. In the future, Silveira wants to keep telling stories, bringing to life iconic roles like Onegin's Tatiana and the Alvin Ailey solo Cry. "Of course, there's been an increase in diversity in ballet—if we compare it to back in the day, it's amazing how many different dancers from all over the world are pursuing this professionally," she says. "But it's still a very narrow field, especially in terms of skin color. Change should start in the schools, with training. We need to go further to bring students from all over. If the dancers are diversified, the audience will be, too."
New York City Ballet corps member Rachel Hutsell was practically destined to join the company: "When I was about two years old, my grandmother gave me a video of New York City Ballet performing George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, and I watched it every single night for two years!" she says. "That was what first sparked my love of dance." Now, her preternaturally assured dancing makes her a natural fit for her dream company.
Hutsell—who hails from Houston, TX, and trained at Allegro West Academy of Dance until she enrolled at the School of American Ballet—initially had more anxiety about making it in NYC than about her racial identity. "In my apprentice year, I was asked to be part of a New York Times piece on diverse dancers. I kind of woke up and realized, 'Oh, that's right. I'm black. And I'm part of this conversation.' " She's disappointed that that conversation has taken so long to happen. "We want to see beauty and diversity come together in unity, because that's what America is," she says. "Misty has gone out there and said, 'I'm diverse, I'm beautiful, and I'm going to succeed.' And that's an important example for all of us."
Dance runs in India Bradley's family: Her mother is a dance teacher and a former member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Unsurprisingly, Bradley ended up in dance classes at a young age, studying a little bit of everything but falling hardest for ballet. After training at Dance Theatre of Harlem and the School of American Ballet, Bradley earned her apprenticeship with New York City Ballet last year. Tall and impossibly long-limbed, she's brought a compelling mix of energy and delicacy to a slew of corps roles, as well as some featured parts in The Nutcracker. "I love the fast pace of the company," she says. "You have to keep up. You see how focused everyone is, and you want to work that hard, too."
Bradley grew up idolizing NYCB principals like Wendy Whelan and Tiler Peck, and aspires to join their ranks. "There's a lot of discussion at the moment about the fact that there has never been an African-American female soloist or principal in the company," she says. "I would love to be the first black female to get to that point. I don't necessarily want it for me; it's more just that it needs to happen. It's not about my success. It's bigger than that."
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Most of us first met Jasmine Perry back in 2014, during her turn on Teen Vogue's web series "Strictly Ballet." At that point, Perry was a coltish teenager finishing up her last year at the School of American Ballet. Since then, she's taken a job with Los Angeles Ballet and matured into a dancer of refinement and charm—but fans still relate to her 18-year-old self. "Doing 'Strictly Ballet' was great because it taught me how to be professional, how to work with public relations teams, how to communicate with adults," she says. "But it's funny because, especially when I come back to NYC, people always recognize me from the show. There's this one part of my life on the internet—once it's out there, it never disappears!"
Perry, who trained at North Carolina Dance Theatre (now called Charlotte Ballet Academy) before enrolling at SAB, grew up in a diverse home, with a black father and a Filipino mother. "My whole family is from different places, so I didn't really see color until I went to school," she says. "Realizing that I was one of the only kids at SAB who wasn't white was eye-opening. But I used that as motivation to work harder." She admires Misty Copeland's groundbreaking advocacy, and hopes to follow her example. "It's heartwarming to come out after a show and have kids asking for autographs because I look like them," she says. "There's someone onstage they can relate to, and that's progress."
Misty Copeland. Her name is synonymous with exquisite artistry and outspoken advocacy. And her visibility has made a huge impact on the ballet world. Ballet's relationship with race has always been strained at best, hostile at worst. But Copeland's persistent message and star quality have finally forced the ballet industry to start talking about racial diversity, inclusivity, and representation. "The rarity of seeing ourselves represented is sad," Copeland says. "The more we see every hue and body shape represented on the stage, the more possibilities young dancers feel they have for themselves."