Body Images Issues Are Not Just a Dancer Thing
There's this beautiful scene in A Ballerina's Tale, the documentary about Misty Copeland out today, in which Copeland marks dance steps in perfect synchronization with one of her mentors, Raven Wilkinson. Wilkinson, 80, was the first black dancer to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the '50s; Copeland, 33, became American Ballet Theater's first black principal dancer last June. There are many years between the two ballerinas, but their sisterhood is clear–the lack of diversity in classical ballet hasn't changed dramatically from Wilkinson's time to now, after all. A Ballerina's Tale, directed by Nelson George, chronicles Copeland's rise to success past barriers like race, body-image issues, and a late start in dance at 13. It beautifully weaves scenes of her history-making performances, rehearsals, and personal journey with insight from other black women, her supporters and fellow pioneers. The movie is another milestone in 2015 for Copeland, who in addition to being named a principal dancer with the ABT landed a Time 100 cover in April, made her Broadway debut in On the Town in August, and continued to inspire as the face of viral Under Armour campaigns. We sat down with Copeland and George to talk about the movie, what Copeland has in common with Ronda Rousey, dealing with increasing fame, and whether she'll turn her Broadway fling into a recurring thing. The movie not only focuses on Misty's personal journey, but highlights other black dancers who came before her. What made you two decide to approach the documentary this way? Nelson George: The trick of the movie is trying to balance the story of Misty with all the other elements. We tried to talk about the issues on body image, we tried to talk about race, and we talked intimately about that. We wanted women who had been in the American Ballet Theater in some form to give the idea that Misty is standing on these other people's stories. One of the most important things was the ending, actually, when we have the curtain call of the dancers. That was a very important thing to Misty to have in. We first screened it for dancers and people applauded throughout that curtain call. People who know dance really connect to it, and people who don't are like, 'Who's that?' So I think it's part of a reeducation. Hopefully people see it for the closing—stay for the credits! Misty Copeland: It's my favorite part of the whole documentary, the end. I always get teary eyed. How have dancers like Raven Wilkinson inspired you in your career? Copeland: I feel like, growing up I never really understood or had that type of support where I knew what it meant and how much further I could go if I had it. When I met Raven, it was like this awakening. It was really crazy when I heard her story. It set me on this new mission that I didn't even really understand at the time. She was a mentor in my life even before I met her. She gave me a whole new respect and outlook for how I approached my career and how I valued it as well. I've learned over time now how important it is to have that, so I definitely try to give what little bit of myself I have left to the dancers that I mentor. You talk in the documentary about struggling with body image issues as a young ballerina–why do you think that was important to include? Copeland: I think body-image issues are not just a dancer thing. I think we're much more in tune and aware because the body is our instrument and art and we stare at ourselves in a mirror all day, but I feel like it's something that every woman experiences and every girl experiences. I wanted people to see the difficult side of my story. I wanted people to know I haven't always been this perfect or strong ballerina that people see me as,with Under Armour, for example. You need support to get to this place of confidence that I'm at now. But I do think Under Armour is setting a new example for what a ballerina is, and that you can be feminine and an athlete and represent what a woman is at the same time. George: What's funny to me is that Misty has emerged at the same time as Ronda Rousey with the idea of the athletic woman, the fit woman, as sexual, as alluring, as not just a waifish girl, but a girl who can handle herself. I think there's an interesting thing with Rousey and Misty emerging at the same time in our culture–there's this idea of a new kind of woman's body. I feel there's a zeitgeisty thing going on with this idea. Misty's impact will really be felt in the next 10 years–it's going to be the five-, six-, seven-, eight-, nine-year-old girl who sees her, who grows up with her as a normal image, who will then move forward in ballet and in the world in general.