There’s an obligatory scene in pretty much every movie about ballet, be it comedy or drama or dramedy: the scene that shows a ballerina—a svelte, usually very pale, usually very pretty ballerina—taking off her pointe shoes to reveal feet that are covered in bruises and blood. The scene is meant to evoke the various ironies and self-contradictions of ballet as art form: lightness enabled by strength, daintiness enabled by determination. Artistry and athleticism. Grace and grit. Whirling skirts and floating arms, all spinning and balancing and relying on flesh and bone.
But if ballet has traditionally both embraced and eschewed its core humanity, Misty Copeland, in her athleticism and in her fame, embodies it. She is, on top of everything else, an athlete. And she isn’t shy about presenting herself as such. So it’s significant that what ballet watchers have long expected has come to pass: Copeland has finally been named a principal at New York’s American Ballet Theater. This has come after her spending more than 14 years with the company, nearly eight of them as a soloist. The promotion makes Copeland the first African American female principal dancer in the company’s 75-year history. It also marks, however, a new chapter for ballet—not just as an art, but as a sport.