Misty Copeland was fast becoming the most famous ballerina in the United States — making the cover of Time magazine, being profiled by “60 Minutes,” growing into a social media sensation and dancing ballet’s biggest roles on some of its grandest stages. But another role eluded her: She was still not a principal dancer.
Until Tuesday, when Ms. Copeland became the first African-American woman to be named a principal in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theater.
“I had moments of doubting myself, and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level,” Ms. Copeland said at a news conference at the Metropolitan Opera House on Tuesday afternoon. “At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through, to carry the next generation. So it’s not me up here — and I’m constantly saying that — it’s everyone that came before me that got me to this position.”
Fittingly, the moment of her promotion was captured on video and shared on Instagram. “Misty, take a bow,” Kevin McKenzie, Ballet Theater’s artistic director, could be seen saying, before colleagues congratulated Ms. Copeland, who seemed to be fighting back tears. Her promotion was lauded on social media by, among others, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Prince, who had featured her in a video.
Over the past year, whenever Ms. Copeland, 32, danced leading roles with Ballet Theater, her performances became events, drawing large, diverse, enthusiastic crowds to cheer her on at the Metropolitan Opera House, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. After she starred in “Swan Lake” with Ballet Theater last week — becoming the first African-American to do so with the company at the Met — the crowd of autograph-seekers was so large that it had to be moved away from the cramped area outside the stage door.
In a break with ballet tradition, Ms. Copeland was unusually outspoken about her ambition of becoming the first black woman to be named a principal by Ballet Theater, one of the country’s most prestigious companies, which is known for its international roster of stars and for staging full-length classical story ballets. She wrote about her goals and struggles in a memoir published last year, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.”
A number of leading dance companies and schools, including Ballet Theater, have begun new efforts to increase diversity in classical ballet, but there is a long way to go. Jennifer Homans, the author of “Apollo’s Angels,” a history of ballet, said that ballet had fallen far behind other art forms, like theater, in that regard — making what she called the “phenomenon” of Ms. Copeland all the more important.