American Ballet Theatre (ABT) soloist Misty Copeland is everywhere these days. From interviews on the major television networks and a guest appearance on NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” to regular social media posts, Copeland has gained notoriety beyond the inner circle of the ballet world.
With the recent Under Armor commercial featuring her having gone viral – if you’ve visited Facebook this week, you’ve definitely seen it – it’s all the rage for the general public to comment on her physical strength and marvel that ballet is truly athletic, as much a “sport” as football or hockey, etc., etc. Under Armor certainly seems to have achieved its intended goal. Copeland is strong, determined, successful – and hot! – and everybody’s uniformly amazed by her.
As they should be. Copeland is a gorgeous dancer and a beautiful, successful woman. What most people fail to grasp, I believe, is that she is no stronger or more physically impressive than her peers at the top of the ballet profession. Any dancer performing at Misty’s level – or above, as she is not yet a principal ballerina – can do what she does. The calves so prominently displayed in the commercial, the control and balance, the strength and spirit…that IS ballet. If Under Armor is helping to spread that gospel, then I’m grateful. But, as physically challenging as it is, ballet is not a sport. It requires every bit the same bodily talent and discipline but ballet is an art, demanding not only physical capability but grace, musicality and a transcendent stage presence. There are plenty of dancers out there with Misty Copeland’s calves but her rise is attributable to the miraculous union of her body’s ability with her exceptional artistry.
Part of Copeland’s meteoric rise to popularity is, of course, the fact that she’s a very rare example of a successful black ballerina, one who is more shapely than your average dancer. For this I admire Copeland’s tenacity and I celebrate ABT for recognizing her as a valuable contributor to the art form. Under Armor is smart to cash in on Copeland’s unique position. But while it’s positive that the company is promoting the idea that ballet is tougher than you think, it does dance a disservice to reduce its definition to pure sport. That’s the problem with a sportswear label being the leading educator about ballet to the general public. Dance companies around the world – the true experts – should be teaching us about ballet on TV and social media. As I’ve said all along, it’s past time to unleash the archival footage and play it for the world to see. Invite new audiences into the rarefied dance world by making accessible the incredible strength – and beauty – of ballet and the artists who dedicate their lives to performing it.