From Misty Copeland: Adjustments, Tips and Inspiration

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From Misty Copeland: Adjustments, Tips and Inspiration
Misty Copeland (center) coaching students at Harlem Stage on Monday (facing the camera, Emily Lugohart and Gabriela Urena). Credit Marc Millman

Dougie Baldeo, a 13-year-old ballet student at Harlem School of the Arts, stood onstage Monday night as Misty Copeland offered him pointers on his port de bras, or carriage of the arms.

“Once you start moving, I don’t want to see the claw creep back in,” she said, referring to his sometimes tense right hand.

Dougie was one of 13 students selected to study — if only for an hour — with Ms. Copeland, one of the most famous ballerinas in the world, who in 2015 became the first female African-American principal dancer with American Ballet Theater.

And if the students, from Harlem School of the Arts and the Dance Theater of Harlem School, were already feeling nervous because of all that star power, there was added pressure: an audience. The event, “A Misty Copeland Ballet Class,” organized by Harlem Stage at its Gatehouse space was open to the students’ families and peers, with a few seats available to the public.

What started as a technique class — focused on turnout of the legs, placement of the arms, straightness of the back — became a larger kind of learning experience, when Ms. Copeland, 35, was joined for an after-class discussion by a trailblazing African-American dancer of another generation, the 86-year-old Carmen de Lavallade. The two spoke about breaking down barriers for black ballet dancers and honoring those who had done so before them.

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For Ms. Copeland, a life-changing role model was Raven Wilkinson, who, when she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955, became the first African-American woman to dance with a classical ballet company. For Ms. de Lavallade, it was her cousin Janet Collins, who was accepted into the same troupe two decades earlier on the condition that she lighten her skin. She turned down the job, later becoming the first black ballerina to dance with the Metropolitan Opera.

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From Misty Copeland: Adjustments, Tips and Inspiration
Ms. Copeland with, from left, Nia Blackman Ciyanna Rogers-Taylor and Zuri Omenih. Credit Marc Millman

Today, Ms. de Lavallade told the students, “there are no limits.” She added: “You have the freedom to be who you want to be, but you have to focus and work for it.”

If the class was any indication, these young dancers, ranging in age from 8 to 13, are no strangers to focus and hard work. Taking their places at the barre, they followed intently as Ms. Copeland led them through a series of exercises, pausing to offer corrections, to adjust fingers and feet. The barre should be used “as support, not to hold on for dear life,” she said. The arms in fifth position should be rounded yet lengthened, as opposed to looking like “a cry for help.”

While Ms. Copeland attended to details, Ms. de Lavallade — an actress and choreographer as well as a multifaceted dancer — zoomed out, offering a necessary reminder that technique isn’t everything. When the students rested on the floor after the barre exercises she stood up from her front-row seat and gently steered the class in an unexpected direction.

“There’s a light coming out of your head,” she said, asking them to envision a vertical beam of energy, and they all seemed to grow a little taller. “You have to start using your imagination for your bodies.” Rather than teaching steps, she invited the students to stand and imagine watching something on the horizon, then something crawling on the ground. Suddenly, through those simple prompts, they had all become part of a story — and looked the most relaxed they had all evening.

After the concerted struggle of technique class, it was comforting to hear Ms. de Lavallade stress the importance of conversing with, rather than arguing with, the body. “You have to talk to your body and be kind to it and not force it,” she said.

Or as Dougie Baldeo put it after class, reflecting on what he had learned, “You have to make sure that you’re having fun and not getting too too too focused, because you don’t want to stress yourself out or anything.”

If one goal of the evening was to encourage the students to dream big, it worked.

“I really look up to Misty Copeland,” said Ciyanna Rogers-Taylor, 11, of the Dance Theater of Harlem School, noting that she owns “all of her books.” And Ms. de Lavallade, she added, was just as great an inspiration, “for how long she’s been dancing, and how she opened up a pathway for the rest of us.”

“I hope I can dance with them in the future,” she said.

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