In a new ad for Under Armour, a young girl reads a rejection letter from a ballet academy telling her that she has “the wrong body” for ballet as American Ballet Theater soloist Misty Copeland—her “wrong body” in full display—gives them a taste of what they’re missing.
George Balanchine, considered the father of American ballet, had a very particular aesthetic. When Balanchine’s dancers stood in a line, they all looked the same, their slim bodies creating one uniform creature. As a result, great ballerinas in the American tradition (just like their Russian counterparts) are slender and taut. They have small heads, long limbs, and downward-sloping shoulders. They have tiny waists, narrow hips, and often a visible sternum. They are porcelain white.
Then there’s Misty Copeland.
There is a lot that makes Copeland unusual. Most dancers stand at least 5 feet 4 inches tall. Copeland is 5 feet 2 inches tall.* She has a woman’s curves in an artistic tradition that glorifies prepubescent straight lines. She began dancing when she was 13, which is about 10 years later than many girls who end up as professional ballerinas get started. She’s black.
Copeland overcame a lot more than her untraditional appearance to become a professional ballerina. In her recent memoir, she explains how she grew up poor, one of six children of a single mother. She discovered ballet at the local Boys and Girls Club, and continued to take classes while her family shuttled between temporary homes and wretched motel rooms. Following an ugly custody battle, a few scholarships, and national acclaim as a ballet prodigy, Copeland became a company member at ABT.
While Copeland’s own story reads like a fairy tale happy ending, the ballet world is often harsh. The demands it places on young dancers are fierce, and the physical ideals it promotes are hard to shake. Ballet taught me grace and discipline as a girl. I am grateful for those lessons. However, ballet also meant I had to stand in a mirrored studio while someone told me everything that was wrong with my body.
Most dancers, or ex-dancers, have horror stories: Young girls are told to weigh in in front of the class, instructed to get breast reductions, and scolded for having feet that aren’t “good enough.” A friend I grew up dancing with recently told me about girls who would purposefully jam their feet under wooden blocks until they morphed into a perfect arch. I never went to such lengths but quit ballet when I was 16—too frustrated, too impatient, and too imperfect. I quit knowing that my leg was never going to extend to a proper length and that the leotard I saw in the catalog was never going to hang on my DD breasts the way it hung on that concave-chested blonde in the photograph.
In a discipline where young girls habitually mutilate their bodies in search of a rigid idea of perfection, Copeland is so very welcome. For aspiring dancers (and their teachers) to see that her body—her skin color, her monster glutes, her bust—do look right, that’s just huge.
Correction, August 5, 2014: This post originally misstated Misty Copeland’s height as 5 feet 4 inches tall. She’s 5 feet 2 inches tall.