In case you haven’t seen it yet, the cover of the September issue of Essence Magazine features ballerina Misty Copeland in full-on, fabulous glam mode. It’s the kind of pop celebrity presence that is usually reserved for entertainment superstars like singers Mary J. Blige and Beyonce or actresses like Taraji P. Henson or Kerry Washington.
The inside story by Julee Wilson is accompanied by another fashion shot – this one depicting Copeland as a crop top and leggings-clad warrior surrounded by a phlanx of rather haphazardly styled but admiring ballet students.
While we haven’t read the story yet, the photos suggest that for all of the glamour celeb treatment, Essence has missed the point when it comes to Copeland’s historic ascendance to the principal dancer ranks at American Ballet Theatre.
Copeland long ago proved that she was fierce and strong. That’s not why she was promoted. She was promoted because she proved she had the range and artistry to go beyond that in an increasing number of roles, from the heartwarmingly gauche cowgirl of “Rodeo” to the soulful Swan Queen of “Swan Lake.” She also proved she’s lightening at the box office; only a fool would ignore the kind of buzz Copeland creates.
But in playing up Copeland’s physicality as a symbol of her strength and, well fierceness, Essence unwittingly played right into the stereotype of black women in ballet. Traditionally, black ballerinas are cast in more contemporary works where they are celebrated for their strength and power. Even in the neoclassical and classical repertoire, black ballerinas have traditionally, more often than not, been cast in roles that call for power rather than the roles that highlight soulfulness and vulnerability.
Of course, vulnerability doesn’t exactly play into the Essence brand. Its celebration of Copeland as a fierce ballet queen overcoming obstacles is certainly a story that plays to the Essence audience. And indeed, that is an important and inspiring part of Copeland’s story.
But it will be important to see just how Copeland is portrayed as she and her fans move forward into this new phase of her career. Hopefully, Copeland’s career and portrayals in the media will feature a balance.
Until then, it will be critical for all concerned to guard against falling into easy stereotypes. Copeland and her potential legacy deserve that.
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