Misty Copeland Brings Diversity to Ballet

A new initiative, Project Plié, wants American ballet to look more like America.

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Misty Copeland in performance (Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

In her national Diet Dr. Pepper commercial, ballerina Misty Copeland, 31, declares, "I am one of a kind." Indeed, the black ballerina, who is Italian, African and German, looks like no others in her peer group at the American Ballet Theatre. But as proud as she may be to be one of a kind, she is also doing something to ensure that the next woman who looks like her and wants to be a ballerina doesn't have to say the same thing.

Copeland, with the help of American Ballet Theatre, recently announced the launch of a diversity initiative called Project Plié. "My goal is to show children that this exists," Copeland told the Wall Street Journal. The plan is to take the initiative nationwide, teaching dance not just at ballet schools but the Boys and Girls Club of America as well, with the idea that the next Misty Copeland can be found anywhere in the country.

Through partnerships with regional ballet companies and Boys and Girls Clubs of America -- where she was discovered -- American Ballet Theatre plans to offer scholarships to promising dancers of color, eventually creating a stronger pipeline of performers from underrepresented groups. It hopes that a more racially diverse cast of performers also leads to a broader audience.

The strategy is twofold: American Ballet Theatre wants to see more diversity onstage and in the audience. As Rachel Moore, ABT's chief executive, told the Wall Street Journal, "The demographics of this country are radically changing. We're not going to be relevant in 50 years if we don't look like America."

At the age of 13, with no prior training, Copeland was spotted by a dance instructor at the Boys and Girls Club and encouraged to take up ballet. Five years later she was dancing with ABT in its second company. A year later, in 2001, she was picked to be in the company's corps de ballet, a group that dances around the company's biggest stars, and six years later she was a soloist in the company. 

But what makes Copeland's achievements even more impressive is that she didn't look like any of the other dancers. Prior to her appointment as a soloist, ABT didn't have a black soloist for 20 years, and Copeland was only the third one in the company's history. Such achievements are why she has garnered the attention of people outside the ballet world, such as Prince.

The new season of American Ballet Theatre begins Oct. 30 in New York City.

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