Trailblazer Icon Misty Copeland dances so others can fly

OPINION: The first African-American principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre received the award because she has opened doors for so many others.

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Misty Copeland performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Misty Copeland received theGrio Award for Trailblazer Icon, which makes perfect sense because she is breaking down walls in the world of ballet and making it more accessible for Black and brown people and she’s doing this with style.

Copeland has been called the Jackie Robinson of classical ballet because she is the first African-American principal dancer in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theatre. The 2015 documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale” reveals that before her, there was never a Black female principal dancer in a major international dance company. She is incredibly meaningful to Black people because she is winning on a stage where they have not let us win before. And she has paved a path that so many dream of walking on. Her success has been a beacon to others who love ballet, and it has been a message that you can achieve anything. Her story says: Don’t let some old white gatekeepers keep you from your dream. 

But amidst all of the ground that Copeland is breaking, she never forgets that her success is possible only because she is following giants. In her theGrio Awards speech, she said, “I am very much aware that I stand on the shoulders of countless trailblazers. It’s their courage, determination and resilience that have paved the way for my own accomplishments,” she said. “So every accolade I receive is a collective celebration of our progress and an affirmation of what’s possible when we support one another.”

I love that. All modern Black success stands on the shoulders of the ancestors and all of those fought in their own way to make our lives a little easier. No Black person can say that they succeeded alone. We have the chance to succeed because others opened doors for us. It’s crucial to have the humility to understand that our opportunities come from all the Black freedom fighters who came before us.

TheGrio Awards

Copeland would surely be the ancestors’ wildest dream. She’s a talented, elegant, virtuoso who reminds us all that the sky’s limit. That’s why she’s one of the modern heroes who the Black community holds in the highest esteem. She’s on those lists of Black people our children should strive to be like alongside Michelle Obama and Oprah because Copeland, like them, shattered an important glass ceiling. Now she’s one of those Black people we show our kids to help them believe they can do anything. 

Copeland knows her success means she has a responsibility to inspire others. She’s helped spread her message by writing books aimed at younger people to help them see that anything is possible.

I talked to her backstage at the GrioAwards, and she is every bit as graceful and balletic as you would expect. She floats into the room with the air of a princess. She’s confident, poised and moves with poetry. She is the embodiment of beauty. Every fabric of her clothes is perfect. Every strand of hair is in place. Does anything bother this woman? You would think not.

Copeland’s success is a tribute not just to her and all the people who taught her but also to the amazing Black dance icons who came before her. We have seen Black heroes emerge from the dance world before — I think of Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison, Arthur Mitchell, Katherine Dunham and Bill T. Jones. They set the stage for Copeland’s success. They succeeded thanks to Black dance spaces and/or institutions that they created. When they became massive names in the dance world, it opened eyes. They showed the world that we can dance at the highest level. Copeland stands on their shoulders — their success helped break down doors for her in a white institution like American Ballet Theatre. 

Copeland is an extraordinary person who has changed the world. And the amazing thing about spending time with her and interviewing her is that the more you know her, the more you love her and the more you see that she has used her power to help transform the world for the better.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of Masters of the Game on theGrioTV. He is also the host and creator of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show “Star Stories with Toure” which you can find at He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.

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