The Phenomena of "First": Why Misty Copeland Isn't What You Think

I'm going deep in today's blog, because as I've promised, in addition to being a space for the fun, educational and inspirational facets of dance, this is also a space for honest discussion about the challenges and problems the dance world has and is facing. 

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland

You'd probably have to be living under a rock to not at least recognize the name of Misty Copeland. She's a talented, versatile, strong and dynamic dancer with American Ballet Theater. She is also a woman of color. These two facts have created a lot of buzz in the social media world, and credited Misty with being the first African American Principal Dancer at ABT, which she is. But before that, she was incorrectly labeled as the first female African American soloist dancer at ABT. It's that before bit that needs to be spotlighted, because it doesn't give credit to the path that was cleared for Copeland. It was an extremely unrepresented path (let's do better, dance world!), but it was still there. And to not give credit where credit is due is not only not fair to the artists who dedicated their lives to dance, but dangerous because it dilutes the vibrant history of dance and its pioneers.  

Debra Austin, Principal Dancer at Pennsylvania Ballet in the 1980's

Debra Austin, Principal Dancer at Pennsylvania Ballet in the 1980's

My issue isn't with Misty Copeland at all. She's badass, much needed voice in the dance community, not to mention a phenomenal dancer. What I have a problem with is the proliferation of words like 'only' and 'first'. Today we use these terms to convey admiration, respect, and fame, further fodder for the popular notion that we're nobody until we're somebody who's done something singular. Here's a spoiler alert: not only are these terms and ideas not true, they're ridiculous! It's 2017! It's all been done before. It's all been done before, but not by you. Whatever "it" is that you do - dance, draw, sing, write, that "it" has never been heard by the world before because you haven't been here until now. That is the first that I wish we could focus on. Rather than using first as a negative (that what you have to offer will never be unique unless you've done "it" first/differently/as its never been done before), what if we used it as a jumping off point to celebrate our individual voices and strengths? Would we be a little more accepting of ourselves and others? Would it create a little more room for everyone instead of cramming the first and select few into tidy little boxes? I don't know, but I can tell you from experience that when we make room for everyone, we also make more room for ourselves and the fear of not being seen falls away. A universal truth: we all want to see glimpses of ourselves as we navigate through our lives. While 'firsts' can help highlight our fellow crewmates,  and inspire us, 'firsts' can also isolate us even further from the larger communities we seek.

Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to dance with the Ballet Russe

Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to dance with the Ballet Russe

So, here's what I think: the next time you see something touted as being a 'first', #1, ask if that's really true. Dig around, and find out for yourself. #2, don't allow 'firsts' to make you feel bad. You're already a first by being here, in the world, as yourself. You do you boo. You don't need Google or Wikipedia or social media to associate your name with 'first' to be valued. #3 shout out the people/places/things that give value to your journey. I'll go first:

  • Misty Copeland - Principal Dancer of color with ABT - #fierce 
  • Nora Kimball - Soloist Dancer of color with ABT, Nederlands Dance Theater & Frankfurt Ballet in the 1980's and 90's

Your turn! Who and what are giving life to your creative lives? Did you learn something new from this post? Want to tell me how much you love Misty and why? Let's talk it out, yo! I'm always interested to hear what you have to say.

PS: Here's some further recommended reading for you on this topic!