I’d like to begin a series in which I highlight strong female role models that my daughter will be exposed to as she grows up. Even before she was born, I made a promise that I would show her that her existence as a girl and a woman in this world does not need to be limited by any external factors, and that she should look within for confidence and pride. We all know our culture loves holding women to impossible standards while simultaneously expecting our subservience in many aspects of our lives. This, in my experience, is true of both American and Indian cultures. In this series, I hope to focus on women who have broken boundaries that have been in place for centuries and risen to the pinnacles of achievement and success in their professional careers. I will start with ballerina Misty Copeland.
Misty Copeland is now a well-known name across America, as she is the first African-American principle dancer at American Ballet Theater (ABT) in their 75 year history, being promoted just last year in 2015. She has graced the cover of Time Magazine, been on 60 Minutes, and written a bestselling book about her life and career. In our age of social media influence, she was able to turn ballet into a widely sought out and respected art form with her Under Armour ads. She turned the tides on how ballerinas are expected to look. Artistry and skill aside, Misty is not what was previously your “typical” ballerina. She is curvy, muscular, and most obviously, black. For so long, ballerinas were supposed to appear pre-pubescent: flat chested, wispy creatures bordering on skeletons. This led to serious and life threatening eating disorders in many aspiring professional ballerinas. Misty too faced the pressure to lose weight and “look the part,” but somewhere along the way she decided that her body would represent something important, inspiring, and beautiful to the world at large. She defied not the odds, but the expectations of the white-washed classical arts, and used hard work to show that outward appearances do determine the ability to master the dance. In other words, her body was not something to change or hide in order to be successful. It was something to encourage girls like her to take chances and excel.
In the documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale,” one author and expert on the history of ballet noted that it really was not until the 1960s when ballerinas were expected to look the way they do now. In the centuries-long history of this dance form, the past few decades turned its dancers into skinny young-appearing girls. Perhaps because of its classical form and little room for artistic freedom, it was expected that all dancers should look the same. In Indian classical dance, however, one’s body type is not so much a factor as one’s mastery of the various hand expressions, facial expressions, and body movements. This should also be the case for ballet, and now that Misty is at the forefront of change, I believe we will begin to see more artists with vast talent diversifying ballet stages worldwide. I hope that young girls will look to her as an example of how being feminine can also mean being powerful and strong both physically and mentally. As Misty states in the documentary, learning ballet challenged her body and mind as needed to learn how to think critically. It makes sense-you don’t want to misstep and fall when your entire body is balanced on a few toes while twirling around a stage!
It would be a dream for me to see Misty Copeland on stage one day. I don’t know if she will still be dancing when my daughter is old enough to appreciate a performance, but it would be such a pleasure to share this experience with her as well. Hopefully by then there will be many more ballerinas that look more like my daughter, and teach her that appearance does not dictate success.
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I love that you are creating a role model list for her. I didn’t know that the restrictions around ballet dancers are just in recent years- which leads me to believe even more that you don’t need to look a certain way to be an excellent ballet dancer. I think that Copeland is inspiring and am thrilled she is breaking down old stereotypes and barriers.
Yes I was surprised too! I just thought that is always how it was in ballet. Obviously all the dancers were white because it originated in Europe, but the idea of being extremely skinny to the point of disease and death is very new.
I love the idea of gathering a list of role models. Copeland is certainly and excellent one. I haven’t watched “a ballerina’s tale” yet, after reading this post I will make sure I do.
Thanks for reading!