Ballerina Misty Copeland Speaks on Importance of Diversity, Determination

The first African American female principal dancer’s talk at UC Riverside packed the University Theatre on Dec. 10

Misty Copeland talks to a packed theatre at UC Riverside. Photo by Carrie Rosema

By Amy Zahn

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Renowned classical ballerina Misty Copeland addressed the University of California, Riverside on the importance of perseverance and diversity in a free public lecture titled “An Evening with Misty Copeland” in the University Theatre on Dec. 10.

Copeland spoke about her rise to success — a story of struggle, and ultimately, triumph — to an auditorium filled with students and community members, many of them dancers who, like her, feel they do not represent the “stereotypical” ballerina because of the way they look.

The crowd gives Misty a standing ovation. Photo by Carrie Rosema

The crowd gives Misty a standing ovation. Photo by Carrie Rosema

This struggle is all too familiar for Copeland, who has spent her career fighting the racial prejudices ingrained in ballet, a world that has historically had little room for black dancers.

“I didn’t know of any black dancers. That was so far out of my realm of what was possible, to see someone that looked like me,” said Copeland, whose experiences growing up poor in Los Angeles presented obstacle after obstacle to her budding dance career.

In June 2015, she became the first female African American principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history, and the first African American woman to dance the lead in the company’s production of “Swan Lake” that same month.

In addition to social barriers, Copeland has endured potentially career-ending injuries, but has persevered. Her injuries, including severe leg fractures from dancing in “The Firebird” in 2012, have given her the determination to fight even harder to become a better dancer, she said.

Misty takes a photo with young audience members. Photos by Carrie Rosema

Misty takes a photo with young audience members. Photos by Carrie Rosema

She encourages others to follow in her footsteps and break down barriers. “It’s OK to not fit into the mold that the ballet world has created. It’s OK to be different. It’s OK to be the first,” Copeland said.

Copeland’s struggles have made her a voice for change in the dance world and beyond, and inspired those who came to listen to her speak.

“I was so moved to see so many young dancers, especially young dancers of color, coming out to hear Misty speak,” said Sarinah Simons, who graduated from UCR in 2015. “I know for a fact she changed a lot of lives today. I’m so proud that my alma mater continues to foster younger generations and cherish and celebrate diversity.”

Second-year dance Ph.D student Xiomara Forbez agreed. “It was inspiring to hear Misty share her experiences in ballet, including persevering in the face of systemic racial injustices,” she said.

The talk was organized by African Student Programs, which works to create an inclusive environment for students.

Misty takes questions from the audience. Photo by Carrie Rosema

Misty takes questions from the audience. Photo by Carrie Rosema

In addition to her dance accomplishments, Copeland has authored multiple books and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in April 2015.

She will perform in a production of “The Nutcracker” in Segerstrom Hall in Santa Ana on Dec. 16 and 19.

 

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