Misty Copeland performs in 2005 in Century City, Calif.
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

History will be made at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on the evening of Thursday, April 9, when Misty Copeland, a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, joins Brooklyn Mack of the Washington Ballet in a performance of Swan Lake. Copeland and Mack, both African American, will go where no dancers of color have gone before. They will become the first African Americans to dance the leading roles of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried respectively in what remains our whitest performing art: classical ballet.

There should be little doubt that Copeland—a rising star at the American Ballet Theater who gained notoriety after appearing in a widely noticed Under Armour advertising campaign—and Mack—trained at Washington’s Kirov Academy of Ballet and Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet—have demonstrated ample talent on ballet stages around the world. Their appearance as leads in Swan Lake would be seen merely as appropriate next steps in their expanding careers if they were white.

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Their success should remind all Washingtonians of the pioneering role that D.C. has played in promoting African-American dance. As dance historian Tamara Brown has noted, the juxtaposition of academic training at Howard University and the numerous popular theaters along U Street nurtured a creative center for African-American dance during much of the 20th century. Howard University’s Maryrose Reeves Allen stood at the heart of this energetic scene.

Allen, who was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1899, earned her college degree at the Sargent School in Massachusetts before teaching summer school at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, then the country’s leading center for the study of African dance. She joined the Howard faculty in 1925 as the director of a new physical education program for women.

Allen’s arrival coincided with the heyday of the Howard University Players under the leadership of T. Montgomery Gregory and Alain Locke. Two years after coming to the Howard campus, Allen established a group that would grow to become the Howard University Dance Ensemble, one of the era’s most inspired African-American companies.

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Allen’s dancers penetrated the world of white concert dance by the 1950s, performing with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and on many integrated stages in New York City. Her students—including Debbie Allen, Chuck Davis, Melvin Deal, Ulysses Dove and George Faison—populated major classical- and modern-dance companies throughout the U.S., from Broadway stages to Hollywood studios. They nurtured a lively dance scene in Washington that spawned the Capitol Ballet and professional companies associated with the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Maryrose Reeves Allen remained active in the Howard University and dance communities after her retirement in 1967. In 1991, one year before Allen’s death, Howard became the first historically black university to offer a degree in dance through its Department of Theatre Arts. Her spirit will be very much present at the Kennedy Center as Copeland and Mack step center stage.

Blair Ruble is vice president for programs at the Wilson Center and the author of Washington’s U Street: A Biography.