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The Dancers Breaking The Color Barrier In Professional Ballet

By Michelle Meywes Kopeny in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 13, 2015 9:35PM

Erica Lynette Edwards

Ballerina Misty Copeland made history this summer becoming the first African-American Principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theater. Eyes have been on her for a while though, and not just from the dance community. After being tapped the company’s first African-American soloist and starring in an Under Armour ad campaign, Copeland brought renewed attention to the art. Her promotion has also brought attention to diversity in ballet, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

We recently talked to Erica Lynette Edwards, who spent 15 years dancing with the Joffrey Ballet, and is now their Director of Community Engagement, about what Copeland’s promotion means socially for dance, as well as how the company is reaching out to the community’s youth. Edwards has been recognized for her own accomplishments, being named “Black History Maker” by the Chicago Sun-Times and a “Young Leader of the Future in the Arts” by Ebony magazine, and she also told us about her own experience as a young African-American ballerina.

CHICAGOIST: As color barriers are broken over all sorts of different fields, what does Misty Copeland’s promotion mean for the dance world in particular?

ERICA LYNETTE EDWARDS: Misty’s promotion, and the fact that it’s gaining national, international attention lets the whole world know that dancers of color can be promoted, that they’re that good and that they exist. I feel a lot of times people don’t see black ballerinas, so when they see one they’re like, ‘oh, there’s a person of color on stage.’ Her promotion is just really telling the world that there are dancers with talent that exist and that it should become a norm. Her breaking the barrier should no longer be a surprising thing . Now that that’s been done, young girls who might not have known many people that have been in the spotlight can see someone and realize that they can do the same thing.

C: You were featured in the Beautiful Ballerinas children’s book. It must feel good on your end to be an inspiration to young kids because ballerinas come in all colors.

ERICA LYNETTE EDWARDS: Yeah. When I started dancing, my cousin was dancing the Nutcracker on stage and that’s how I first started to see ballet and enjoy it, so I gained my personal inspiration from seeing someone on stage who of course was my family, but also looked like me on the stage doing ballet. Many times there are students who might the only person of color in that studio, so it’s inspiring to see someone that looks like you to be on that stage.

C: The Joffrey has been supportive for a long time of diversity in dance. This is the sixth year for the Choreographers of Color competition (they just put out a call for those choreographers for this year). What other programs and opportunities does the Joffrey provide for young minority dancers?

ERICA LYNETTE EDWARDS: Our proudest program is one of our outreach programs in community engagement [Lemonis Bridge Program]. That program is where we go into CPS and we teach young kids the basics of ballet so they learn the position of the arms and the feet and basic dance steps and also a little bit of French. From there the students that show promise and potential and have good behavior are invited to Joffrey to continue studying on scholarship. That happens every Saturday. From there we invite some of those kids to be in our Summer Intensive, and then we invite ten kids to be on full scholarship to the Academy. Starting this year, the kids that don’t get the full scholarship will still be on scholarship, but taught through the community engagement department. That’s our biggest program that demonstrates the diversity that we’re trying to build because with dance, like a lot of art, ballet especially, you need to start young. A lot of people are not prodigies like Misty and can start older. Usually the younger you can get started the better and you develop day after day, develop your technique, and your strength and your coordination so that by the time you’re in high school you are doing amazing things.

C: You talked a little bit about your own experience seeing an African-American on stage, but what was your own experience like as a young ballerina? Did you have any obstacles or maybe even advantages?

ERICA LYNETTE EDWARDS: I definitely had obstacles. I used to do some competitions growing up and people would just walk by, dance moms would say, ‘oh, she’s no competition.’

C: Really?

ERICA LYNETTE EDWARDS: Yeah. I was very fortunate to go to Salt Creek Ballet where they let me do everything that I did based on my talent and not on what I looked like. The same thing with me being accepted to Joffrey. As a classical ballet company, I was accepted not because of what I looked like but what I could do—or not accepted because of what I looked like. When Mr. [Gerald] Arpino (Joffrey co-founder) accepted me into the company it wasn’t what he looked at.

C: Misty Copeland has brought a lot of attention to the dance world, because of her color or not, and that’s exciting for dance. Do you agree?

ERICA LYNETTE EDWARDS: Yes, Definitely. I think it would be a mistake just to promote people just because they looked a certain way. I think the dance world should be based on talent and she’s that person who you don’t have to look at her skin to say, ‘oh she should be promoted because she is African-American.’ She should be promoted just because she’s a wonderful dancer.

Because she’s becoming a world wide name, it helps ballet in general because can think, ‘oh Misty, I saw her on a commercial, maybe I’ll go see the ballet. Maybe I’ll see someone like her on stage.’ It’s wonderful that it brings attention to the lack of diversity in ballet, but also brings attention to the art form.