As a Black woman, there are certain moments that define how you see the world.
How you see your profession. How you see your peers.
Even how you see yourself.
I’ll never forget when the American Ballet Theatre was set to film Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House. This was some years ago, when I was just starting with the company and I was in the corps de ballet. I remember being so excited because it was rare that ABT would choose to record a full-length performance. This is the pinnacle of ballet in this country, putting a classic on film for the world to enjoy. That’s our Super Bowl, in a sense. I was only going to be one of the girls in the corps de ballet line in the second act, but it was important to me that I would get to be a part of that documented history.
Then one day, one of my really close friends, a Black male dancer at ABT at the time, came up to me and told me he’d overheard a staff member, right in the middle of the cafeteria, say, “Misty should be pulled from the second act.”
Because of my technique?
Because of my work ethic?
Because I didn’t deserve to be on that stage?
Because it would “ruin the aesthetic of it.”
The following day, I was removed from the casting.
The filming happened.
I wasn’t in it.
I was already different, already being judged.
Before that happened, I’d mostly kept my head down. I was the only Black woman at ABT for the first decade of my career, and initially I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Other dancers, especially ones who got to know me personally, used to actually tell me, “Well, I don’t see you as Black” — as if that were some type of compliment or something. There were times when we traveled abroad together that I wouldn’t see a single person who looked like me for months. At the airport, right before we left, I used to have this routine where I’d go to the newsstand and grab copies of every “urban” magazine they had.
Just to feel grounded. Just to feel some connection to my culture while I was overseas.
It could be a very lonely experience, at times. I was already different, already being judged. But deep down, what kept me going was that I believed that if I could keep working on my craft, and just be the best, then eventually the color of my skin wouldn’t matter.
It turned out to be a lot more complicated.
For years, I was never given leading parts in the classic, full-length ballets, even though outside choreographers kept giving me principal roles in the more contemporary ballets they were creating. When I asked why I wasn’t being cast, I was told: “There are better dancers in the company. That’s why.” And I just couldn’t accept it. I was never someone who was delusional about my abilities or had to convince anyone of my talent, but I had my eyes wide open. I could see and appreciate the talent around me, but I also knew what I was capable of.
After four or five years at ABT, I was ready to give up ballet completely. I felt like I didn’t have a voice and that I was losing my identity. Then Arthur Mitchell, the co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, reached out to me. He embraced me completely, and I remember him always telling me, “You are a queen. Every time you walk into that room, know you deserve to be there.”
I was surrounded by his dancers — dancers who looked like me — and suddenly I felt like I was recharging my batteries. I realized yet again just how important it is for Black dancers to be in all kinds of spaces, and I wanted to carry Mr. Mitchell’s legacy with me back to ABT. His words — and being surrounded by other Black dancers kept me from walking away from my dream, so that eventually I could become the first Black woman to be promoted to principal dancer in ABT’s 75-year history.
Being pulled from Swan Lake became a pivotal moment for me. I knew I had to start speaking out. And it was risky at the time, because I was still very new to the company, but I felt that I needed to start making my voice heard.
Unfortunately, when I started speaking out all those years ago, it felt like no one in the ballet world was listening.
Even as recently as last year, when I called out Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet for using blackface in its production of La Bayadère, I was so disappointed because it seemed as though still no one got it or was listening. I know that blackface is a practice of the Bolshoi and other ballet companies in Europe to this day. However, claiming that something is “tradition” doesn’t make it any better.
I’m a grown woman with vast exposure to our history as Black people in American pop culture. That’s why I was taken aback by the image of two young Russian dancers in head-to-toe blackface and body. So I can only imagine the depths of hurt and confusion that younger generations of Black people must have felt upon seeing the post on Instagram.
I reposted that image for all of my followers to shine a light on a small portion of the racism that exists in ballet. My company didn’t lend any outward acknowledgment or support, nor did the ballet community — not for about a month, anyway. I went into the theater the morning after responding to the post and not one person said a word to me about it. And note that this moment had gone viral, so I knew my colleagues and the ballet world were watching. In fact, the Russsian media responded before any dance publication or my own company would. It felt like it was just me against this very white, racist Russian ballet world.
How could I not feel alone?
Some people in the ballet world like to use the excuse of tradition or formalities to keep certain people out. They like to say that they are “staying true” to the original production. The exact quote from the director of the Russian company was, “The ballet La Bayadère has been performed thousands of times in this production in Russia and abroad, and the Bolshoi Theatre will not get involved in such a discussion.”
None of this makes any sense.
Why not have the discussion?
The beautiful thing about ballet is that technique has carried the art form for hundreds of years. And technique doesn’t have a color. Technique doesn’t require the use of blackface. It doesn’t require a certain “aesthetic” on the stage. It really wasn’t surprising that no one stood by me when I called out the Bolshoi. There weren’t enough people who understood or cared how hurtful such a production can be to Black people.
But it was. Seeing that picture is so damaging. Not just to me, but also to the kids who look like me, who dream of becoming “me” someday.
A year ago, no one cared. That’s just the truth.
But things are changing.
More than anything else in my career, the George Floyd protests have allowed my colleagues — the people I’ve grown up with and worked with for decades — to finally hear me. The world has been turned upside down, but for the first time the ballet world is having the conversations about race that I’ve been trying to have for my entire career. In a time when it’s easy to feel despair, it gives me hope that we will come out on the other side of this stronger — and better than we were before.
2020 was already going to be a challenging and different year for me. I suffered a back injury and had to pull out of a performance in D.C. I was planning to use the time to rest and heal and reflect on what matters to me — and on what I think should matter to the world of ballet.
Then COVID happened, along with the death of George Floyd, and the world suddenly changed.
Suddenly the ballet world was being forced to confront the very same issues I was grappling with: how to reimagine an art form that relies so heavily on European traditions which have nothing to do with who we are now, and how to be more accessible to more people beyond just wealthy ticket holders.
Ballet has always been exclusive. It takes money to participate. It takes money to come and see the performances. But now we have to throw all of that out the window if we want to survive. As terrible as everything is that’s happening right now, the silver lining is that we have an opportunity to reach people who otherwise would never have access to see what we do.
It’s a chance for us to create spaces in different communities so that those communities feel like ballet is theirs too. Because it is. They are part of it. It’s not about going to another elite, white neighborhood where people will complain because the girl in front of them in the audience has an afro.
It’s one thing to say you want to change, to be more diverse. But the events of the past few months mean that now the ballet world (and companies in general) actually have to do it.
Because it’s no longer possible to ignore the strength and struggle behind the voices you once didn’t want to hear.
We’re no longer on an isolated stage.
We can use social media to create intimate connections with more people. It’s a beautiful thing, I think, for people to see the work and the journey and the hardships to get to a beautiful product. We have to reinvent ourselves not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because dancers right now are struggling just to get by.
So much athleticism goes into our craft, in terms of the training and physicality of ballet. But dancers don’t make the salaries of professional athletes. We don’t have the right flooring or the appropriate ballet barres in our houses to be able to train. When performances do finally start happening again, it will take months of training for us to be in the shape that we need to be in to perform. It shouldn’t be the exception that one dancer gets an endorsement deal. It should be the norm. So that the people who are producing the art are actually getting paid.
Being a ballerina comes with an incredible amount of pressure. Being a Black woman who is a ballerina means the pressure is almost incomprehensible. My face is used as an example to show how far we’ve come. But my mission has always been to bring more people with me.
Ballet, like so many other art forms and industries, is undergoing a much-needed reckoning. It’s a chance for us to introduce more people to our world, to give people access to the arts who normally wouldn’t have it. To help more people fall in love with the craft so that every aspect of ballet (from behind the scenes to center stage) can become more diverse.
It’s no longer possible to ignore the strength and struggle behind the voices you once didn’t want to hear.
Sometimes things have to get terribly bad before they get better. The pain may be more visible now. But just because you see the pain and the struggle, doesn’t mean the result can’t be beautiful.
Ballet is meant to look effortless. This, after all, is the main difference between athletes and dancers. An athlete’s performance is measured in sweat. But for dancers it’s the opposite. The way we glide across the stage, or fly through the air, or balance en pointe, it’s all supposed to look graceful and elegant and undemanding, right?
The funny thing about ballet is that it’s strikingly similar to being a Black woman in America.
We’re supposed to smile and be respectful, no matter what the country demands of us. We can’t act out or show pain or outrage, because then we’re seen as ugly and aggressive. We’re supposed to carry the weight of the country on our backs, without receiving any credit for our performance.
We’re supposed to be grateful just for being here.
But it takes strength to hold yourself a certain way. It takes strength to absorb all of the pain and turn it into beauty — so people can’t look away.