Why Misty Copeland Is the Role Model All Our Girls Need

How do you make ballet into something that everyone can enjoy? You smash through barriers, explode racial stereotypes, and shut down the naysayers, just like Misty Copeland.

Before Copeland, the ballet world was very white. Now, her well-chronicled journey to become the first African-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in 2015 has diversified audiences, and inspired young black girls to go after their dreams. Last year, she achieved her goal to become a soloist, and was also named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people.

A photo posted by Misty Copeland (@mistyonpointe) on

An older black woman stands outside the ballet theater and tells The Huffington Post why she’s so inspired by Copeland.

“It’s historical for me, because I’m from a generation that was taught that our bodies weren’t right for ballet - and she has just demolished those stereotypes.”

A younger girl smiles while she speaks about her idol.

“I didn’t like ballet much until I realized that African-American girls can do it too.”

A photo posted by Misty Copeland (@mistyonpointe) on

It’s no surprise that Copeland is having this effect. At age 13, she was labeled a prodigy. Throughout her teenage years, she faced discrimination as a minority dancer. Money was tight, and she couldn’t keep up with the financial burden of ballet as her single mother struggled to cover the expenses.

She was given a scholarship for minority dancers at American Ballet Theatre, where she was able to hone her talent without economic constraints. But she discovered that there was a huge lack of diversity there. On top of that was her curvy body, which was a barrier to getting cast in the lead roles.

Since then, Copeland has helped launch Project Plie, which seeks to boost racial and ethnic diversity in ballet, and there are now many other U.S. ballet companies making an effort to hire more black dancers.

As many ballerinas do, Copeland suffered serious injuries along the way. She was inspired by her mentors, including African American ballet dancer Raven Wilkinson.

A photo posted by Misty Copeland (@mistyonpointe) on

Now, she’s having that same effect on the next generation.

“It’s not about color when she’s up there,” a budding ballerina says, her eyes lit up.

“I’m excited just to see a black woman prominently featured in something like this where normally you would see a lot of white representation,” another audience member comments outside the theater.

“I was tearing up just seeing a strong black woman accomplish this,” says another.

The effect that she has had on the next generation of ballet dancers is undeniable. But even more than that, she’s keeping us all on our toes by showing that with a little determination, we can conquer whatever life throws at us.