In the world of American ballet, Misty Copeland is the exception. As the first black woman to become a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, Copeland knows what it’s like to be one of the few women of color to break through. That’s why when President Barack Obama asked her to visit Cuba as part of a sports envoy program designed to further strengthen relations between the United States and the Caribbean nation, Misty felt struck by the number of brown bodies she saw at the prestigious Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
“Just the imagery of seeing a room full of Cuban women and men with brown skin, doing classical ballet, and it’s not even a question for them,” she told The Undefeated. “It’s like, ‘No, this is what we do and this is what we look like.’ That’s something that will forever stick with me.”
The ballet world continues to be very white, and socioeconomic and cultural reasons play a huge factor in that. According to the New York Daily News, stereotypes that black and brown women’s bodies are more muscular and that the color of their skin would make them stand out in a uniform line keep people of color from rising through the ranks. “A lot of people feel ballerinas should all be the same color,” said former ballerina Robin Williams, who founded Uptown Dance Academy. “You’ll see a line of 20 girls hitting the same poses and they all look alike. The ballerina tights are pink, so some artistic directors feel the skin should be pink. If they put a black girl in that line, she’ll stick out and ruin the ‘color scheme’ so-to-speak.”
Ballet classes also come at a hefty price. Many ballerinas intent on turning professional attend up to six classes on a weekly basis, so it can quickly add up into thousands of dollars a year. And because ballet classes don’t typically exist in black and brown neighborhoods, some parents have the added burden of traveling far distances to get their children to classes.
In Cuba, on the other hand, ballet isn’t just something for the elite. It’s so popular on the island nation that many ballerinas are household names. When Fidel Castro rose to power in the 50s, he gave Alicia Alonso $200,000 to start Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Castro also promised to continue funding the school annually, Yahoo reports. When she lived in Cuba, Afro-Cuban dancer Caridad Martinez landed most of the major roles. There was only one Martinez couldn’t land because of the way she looked: Giselle. “Alicia [Alonso] said I couldn’t dance the role because of my nose and because my hair is curly,” she said. “Even though there are so many ways to fix this for the role.”
Because Cuba has invested in making ballet accessible by everyone, Copeland was able to experience what a ballet school should look like. “To see the diversity, it’s proving all of those people wrong,” she said. “It’s like, ‘No, ballet’s being done everywhere in the world.’ And it’s been going on for a long time. And so to exclude one race, or because you look a certain way, I think is so wrong. And being here, it’s proof that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. They’re doing classical ballet here, and they’re doing it really well.”
Learn more about Misty’s November trip to Cuba at The Undefeated.