This past Monday, Nelson George’s documentary ‘A Ballerina’s Tale’ made its TV premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens film series. The film follows the rise of Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named a principal in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre.
‘A Ballerina’s Tale’ mainly focuses on Misty’s cultural impact and begins by drawing attention to the fact that only one percent of all ballerinas make it into elite companies each year, and an even smaller fraction of those ballerinas are Black women. This just goes to show what a big deal Misty’s accomplishment really is.
In the early portion of the film, we see video footage of a young Misty taking dance classes and performing on stage. As one of six kids, Misty was very shy, and when she discovered ballet at the age of 13 (years after most ballerinas begin their training), she felt that she belonged and finally found her voice. By age 15, Misty was one of the top ballet prospects in California and placed first in the prestigious Spotlight Awards.
Once she moved to New York to join ABT’s Studio Company, she made it her mission to become a principal dancer.
In the film, we see Misty’s emotional journey as she deals with injuries, feelings of isolation due to being the only African American woman out of 80 dancers, being told by the Company to lose weight, and having a more muscular body type and different aesthetic than the other dancers. Misty’s struggle comes full circle when author Brenda Dixon-Gottschild points out that ballet is about assimilation and uniformity, not necessarily individual expression. Historically, this has made it more difficult for Black dancers to fit into the mold.
From the very beginning, the executives at ABT felt that Misty had promise but knew her self doubt was getting in her own way, so they asked Susan Fales-Hill (former ABT Board Chair) to mentor her. Susan took Misty under her wing and introduced her to a “a kitchen cabinet” of Black female trailblazers to help Misty understand her potential and build her confidence, proving just how powerful having a true mentor can be.
— TriniPrincess (@TriniPrincess) February 9, 2016
Thank goodness for mentors…they are the motivation when it feels like nobody understands #BlackBallerina
— Kd BHeart (@LTkd_PRO) February 9, 2016
This documentary is yet another testament to the importance of black women mentoring and upholding black women. #ABallerinasTalePBS
— stacia l. brown (@slb79) February 9, 2016
And Misty’s confidence hasn’t gone unnoticed.
— Nerdy Wonka (@NerdyWonka) February 9, 2016
— Cynthia F. (@cynfinite) February 9, 2016
The community of black women that was built around Misty in her role as Firebird is simply breathtaking. #ABallerinasTalePBS
— Chasity S. Cooper (@chasityscooper) February 9, 2016
Misty Copeland’s cultural influence has been significant, not just because of the Black Girl Magic that she exemplifies, but also because of her ability to draw a new audience to the art of ballet, to challenge stereotypes, and for giving us the message we all need: I will what I want.