On Misty Copeland, Missed Fouettés and the Expectations of Black Women in Ballet

I should open by saying that I’m not a ballerina, I don’t have a huge amount of expertise in Swan Lake and I only just learned about Misty Copeland being harangued Wednesday morning.

While I may not be all-knowing in those areas, I do know a thing or two about messing up or not delivering on stage. One of my most memorable fails, as a matter of fact, actually includes fouettés.

I was fifteen and had gotten a special solo in my studio’s can-can inspired jazz piece to do 10 fouettés in center stage. I was pumped. I’d nailed the turns every time in rehearsal and was beyond ready. Unfortunately, right before my turns I also had to do a big leap and run around the stage in time to make it out for the turns. While it had always gone without a hitch in my studio’s smaller rooms, on stage at the theater, I found myself too winded and tired to do the turns and I ended up stopping after about five.

I was disappointed in myself. After stomping the floor backstage and crying into my teacher’s arms, I managed to pull myself together enough to finish the rest of my recital.

When I messed up my turns, I had people supporting me and still threw a tantrum.

When Misty messed up, she gracefully accepted her mistake and reminded us all why she is the first Black Principal Dancer at ABT.

In case you missed it, here’s my brief recap: Instead of completing the Black Swan’s hallmark 32 fouettés, Misty stopped at around 12 before continuing the rest of the variation.

A day later, some woman on twitter, who I had to look up again while I was writing this because I legitimately didn’t know who she was, had this to say about Misty’s fouettés and her position as an ABT principal dancer:

#FTR I still don’t know who she is and she deleted her Twitter.

First, let’s be clear, there’s a difference between failing/messing up and falling short of expectations. What happened with Misty Copeland is, at worst, falling short of expectations.

Are the fouettés an amazing part of this ballet? Sure.

Are there people in ABT who could probably do all 32 turns without fail at every performance? I have no doubt.

But Misty Copeland is the one who got the role and as far as mistakes go, this wasn’t a huge one and frankly, it doesn’t make or break the show.

As Isabella Boylston pointed out, anyone who goes to see Swan Lake solely for the 32 fouettés has completely missed the point of the ballet and probably wouldn’t have gotten much out of it even if Misty had done all of her turns flawlessly.

Moreover, Misty didn’t unprofessionally fall out of her turns or come out of them in an ungraceful way once she realized that all she could do was 12. She finished her turns cleanly and continued with piques to fill up the time. Frankly, I’m sure the majority of the audience didn’t know there was anything wrong.

The response to Misty’s performance demonstrates that Black women have to be twice as good to get even half as much in any setting. Were it not for the fact that Misty was heavily publicized as the first Black principal dancer of ABT and many critics saw the promotion as a political move, Misty’s turns would have simply been chalked up to a rough show, injury or another excuse, and largely forgotten in the midst of what I’m sure was an otherwise fabulous performance.

Again, I’m not ignoring the fact that Misty didn’t do all 32 turns. But I’m also not ignoring the fact that the forest for the trees mentality that causes so many people to focus on the fact that she didn’t do 32 turns has more to do with Misty, who she is and what she represents than the integrity of the ballet and that is a problem.

America, ballet world, DanceTopians, we have GOT to do better!

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