Misty Copeland is a ballerina who defied all odds when she became the first African-American to be promoted to Principal of American Ballet Theatre, the U.S.'s National Ballet Company
I would like to start this article by giving credit where credit is due. George Balanchine is incredibly important to dance history and helped turn ballet into what it is today. He is considered the father of American ballet. He choreographed for Hollywood, Broadway, and various ballet companies; his repertoire includes the popular shows On Your Toes, Swan Lake, Coppelia, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and a fan favorite...The Nutcracker. One could argue that Misty Copeland would have never danced the lead role as Clara if Balanchine hadn't made the show popular in the U.S. Balanchine helped turn ballet from an unappreciated spectacle into a dignified art form in the states. He was incredibly successful, influential, and powerful in the ballet world of the early 1900's. But as Uncle Ben in Spider-Man always taught me, "with great power comes great responsibility", and in my unpopular opinion, Balanchine significantly influenced ballet for the worse, and has created more setbacks for girls like Misty Copeland than opportunities.
Do you ever see a tall, skinny girl whose clavicles are sticking out of her skin and think she looks like a ballerina? Do you ever wonder why ballet dancers feel so much pressure to stay so thin that eating disorders are so prominent in the dance world? Have you ever even noticed that the majority of professional ballet dancers in this country ARE WHITE?!? There are logical explanations for all of these, and Balanchine is at the root.
Here is a picture of Balanchine with his dancers...
Count how many of them have breasts larger than a B cup. Count how many of them have even an inch of fat on their stomachs. Count how many of them have short legs. Count how many of them are NOT WHITE.
I am not pointing this out to say that skinny white girls are any less beautiful and should not be in ballet. Although I am only 5'4", I'm not much bigger than the girls pictured here; I basically am one of them. I am a typical, thin, caucasian girl with brown hair and brown eyes. Physically, I am incredibly basic, but Balanchine wouldn't have wanted to work with me. He probably would have pressured me to lose weight in order to be one of his dancers. His demands were too much. He wanted impossibly tall (around 5'10"), thin, white women to create this aesthetic of looking light and youthful (practically prepubescent) on stage. He also expected these girls to stretch their bodies beyond the average physical limitations, another reason Balanchine wouldn't have wanted to work with me. My tendons are abnormally shorter than the average person's, so my legs can't bend as much as he would have expected them to. Even thought I almost fit the mold of one of these girls, my tiny flaws wouldn't have made the cut.
Because he would not use dancers who were anything other than this, he created a standard that girls who were different couldn't dance. Any girl that had gone through puberty normally would not make it in his company. If genetics weren't on your side, forget it...being too short or too stout wouldn't cut it. And while there are other reasons that ballet is whitewashed (demographics, opportunities for dance education...all mentioned in Misty Copeland's documentary, but not the focus of this article), Balanchine not accepting girls with flat feet and toned legs (as, generally genetically speaking, African-American dancers tend to have) and only seeing white women as young and beautiful, he set the tone for a lack of diversity in American ballet.
Balanchine had such a great influence on American ballet, but along the way, he managed to destroy any unique dancers' hopes and dreams. No matter how gifted a girl was, the climate of ballet that Balanchine created didn't allow room for her to share her gifts with the world.
Lizzy Howell is a 15 year old dance student from Delaware, whose video went viral when the world saw that a "plus-sized" girl could do fouetté turns just as well...scratch that, BETTER THAN...other respected dancers.
With ballet under the influence of Balanchine's aesthetic, Lizzy Howell would never be a professional dancer. A lot of schools wouldn't even look twice at her just because she doesn't fit Balanchine's mold. Misty Copeland went through similar struggles because of her skin color. Another African-American dancer, Michaela DePrince, who was featured in the documentary First Position (2011), faced discrimination, too. As a child, she was told she would never dance the lead role in The Nutcracker because American audiences "weren't ready for a black [Clara]". She was also told by a dance teacher that black dancers weren't worth investing in. And yet, she is an incredibly talented and beautiful ballet dancer all the same.
Dutch National Ballet Soloist Michaela DePrince
While ballet at its heart is both technically and artistically demanding, there is no where in its Bible that say that girls must meet the standards of Balanchine. Ballet is about telling a story with your body, defying gravity, bringing music to life, bringing joy to others, and making yourself feel beautiful. It is not about being tall, skinny, white, or even incredibly flexible...it is about how you master your body and make it look so beautiful, regardless of all these physical differences or limitations, people can't take their eyes off of you. This is why I will defend ballet until the day I die; it is not the art form that makes people feel badly about themselves...it is the directors, choreographers, teachers, producers, dancers, and audience members that can't break away from Balanchine's outdated aesthetic and see the beauty in every single human being. As a future dance educator and a member of the ballet world, I have taken a vow to get away from these ridiculous expectations and recognize every dancer's beauty and untapped talent. Ballet does not cause eating disorders and other mental illnesses and a low self-esteem...it is the people like Balanchine that do this and make ballet look bad in the process. There are so many beautiful dancers out there like the three I have mentioned, who deserve the chance to train to their full potential and go on stage and defy gravity in a pair of pointe shoes and wear a breathtaking costume and create art that will never leave its audience members' minds.
Balanchine is long dead, and it's time his aesthetic die, too. Ballet is not just for super skinny white girls (although they are welcome to dance, too!)...it is for everyone who wants to put in the work, create art, and show their inner beauty to the world.
You can show your support for these dancers by following them on Instagram!
Misty Copeland: @mistyonpointe or instagram.com/mistyonpointe
Lizzy Howell: @lizzy.dances or instagram.com/lizzy.dances
Michaela DePrince: @michaeladeprince or instagram.com/michaeladeprince
Hello there, my name is Becca and I am a 22 year old dance teacher from Massachusetts.
News & Events
12/23 I was one of NDEO's Guest Bloggers this year! Read "Teaching is a Vocation. Not a Fallback" on their Behind the Curtain Blog!
9/27 I will be presenting my research at the National Dance Education Organization National Conference next week! See my research project by clicking the button below!
4/15 While working on PMA's production of The Addams Family, I got to combine my two favorite styles of dance (ballet and musical theatre) for "The Moon and Me"! Watch my talented students dance by clicking the button below!
2/20 I am choreographing PMA Theatre Guild's Production of The Addams Family! Come see these amazing high school students perform at Presentation of Mary Academy in Methuen, MA April 13 & 14! Tickets available at the door.
2/20 I am stage managing BSU's Dance Kaleidoscope this year! Show dates are March 29-31 at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, MA. Come see this student choreography showcase!
11/5 I will once again be dancing in a BSUDC concert! Tickets to WinterDance are now available!
8/24 NDEO's National Honor Society for Dance Arts has published one of my articles in their newsletter! Read an updated version of "Audition Advice" here:
5/16 Interested in learning about movement concepts? Visit Becca's new Educational Dance website!
5/8 BSU Dance Company's Dance Kaleidoscope 2017 is now on Youtube! You can watch my performances by visiting the VIDEOS page!
4/23 I recently performed for the residents of Allerton House in Hingham, MA! You can watch part of my performance here!
Amesbury Children's Theatre presents...James and the Giant Peach Jr, featuring choreography by me! Click for tickets!
2/8 My piece "Barefoot" is now available to watch online! Click to watch!
2/5 Happy to say I have been cast in BSU Dance Company's Spring concert Dance Kaleidoscope! I will be dancing in 3 faculty choreographed pieces, including excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty in which I will be dancing the role of Lilac Fairy! Show dates are March 31-April 1 at Bridgewater State University.
Click the button for more info!
1/15 Ballet with Becca is now on Facebook! Click to visit the page, and be sure to like it while you're there!
1/14 I am happy to say I will be attending artEmotion's summer intensive in June! I will be dancing in the one week artEmotion Adult Program. If anyone would like to join or audition for any other artEmotion program, visit their website!
12/13 My photo gallery has been recreated! Click to see the new page, including photos from WinterDance 2016!