Misty Copeland Is Making Ballet More Accessible for Black and Brown Children Through Her New Foundation

In an interview with Kindred by Parents, the groundbreaking dancer shared her hopes for The Misty Copeland Foundation and its BE BOLD program for underserved youth.

Misty Copeland speaks virtually from a ballet studio during the 52nd NAACP Image Awards
Photo: NAACP/Getty Images

Misty Copeland is well-known today for her groundbreaking ballet roles, and notably becoming the first African-American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. Her 2012 title role in Firebird inspired her children's picture book about building confidence and courage through grit and determination. But long before she became a full-on star ballerina and household name, Misty was simply a seven-year-old girl with a love for music —specifically Mariah Carey's debut album—and its ability to allow her to escape, serving as the catalyst for her to begin to move her body.

One of five siblings who moved around with her mother often, music was a safe space for Misty. "There was a lot of instability, and music and dance became this safe space for me. No matter where it was that we were living, most of the time I didn't have a bedroom," said Misty at The Root Institute in Washington, D.C. "I would always find this space wherever I was and put music on and move my body. That was what kept me grounded and feeling safe in some way."

Misty's talent was uncovered at 13 at the Boys & Girls Club basketball court where she took her first dance class. Now, she's hoping to provide safe spaces for Black and brown youth to gain culturally sound exposure to dance and ballet through the launch of The Misty Copeland Foundation (MCF), a brand-new non-profit that encourages diversity, equity, and inclusion in dance, particularly ballet.

"I've shared my story about how I discovered ballet at 13 years old on the basketball court of my local Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, CA, and four years later, I moved to New York City to join American Ballet Theatre. It was because someone at that club saw something in me that I had not seen in myself," says Copeland. "In thinking about establishing The Misty Copeland Foundation and its BE BOLD program, it was important to me to provide to children the same type of opportunity and environment that helped build a path for me to succeed not just in this art form, but in my life overall."

The Foundation's central BE BOLD(Ballet Explorations, Ballet Offers Leadership Development) program is a free, child-centered, after-school dance program that will serve 8 to 10-year-old boys and girls, within their communities, at six sites in the Kips Bay and at the Madison Square Boys & Girls Clubs in New York. The twelve-week program, which launched this month, has five core elements: Introductory Ballet, Music for Ballet, Health & Wellness, Tutoring, and Mentoring.

"The BE BOLD program is designed for children from underserved communities who do not have the resources or accessibility for ballet classes," Misty exclusively told Kindred by Parents. "For children and families who have those resources and the access, that's wonderful and the hope is that they will include ballet and dance in their children's experiences along with other activities of interest."

The BE BOLD teaching artists were personally vetted and selected by Misty Copeland and her team at the foundation, completing a week of training in Harlem at the National Dance Institute Collaborative for Teaching and Learning. "NDI, founded by the late Jacques d'Amboise, has a long and impressive history of engaging tens of thousands of children of diverse backgrounds and abilities through arts education. I couldn't think of a better organization to help provide our teaching artists with the necessary tools to work with MCF's young participants," said Misty.

The program also reached out to Dr. Gess LeBlanc, a professor at Hunter College whose research focuses on culturally responsive teaching, to develop BE BOLD's evaluation system and measure program impact. The Ford Foundation and The Goldman Sachs Foundation's One Million Black Women initiative are lead founding funders. Other founding funders include the Arison Arts Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, John and Jody Arnhold, and the Wendy E. Scripps Foundation. One Million Black Women aims to impact the lives of at least one million Black women by 2030. Goldman Sachs' own research on Black Womenomics shows that continued investments in Black women will inspire economic growth, creating a more equitable society.

Misty hopes to break down some of the systemic barriers facing Black and brown dancers that prohibit true inclusion in ballet through her foundation's work. "Body positivity is embedded in the work we are doing to change the children who will experience ballet through our program," she says. "From the 'uniform' the dancers will wear, to the openness of hair expression, we are celebrating individuality and welcoming dancers to embrace their heritage and culture within the ballet community Misty Copeland Foundation is creating."

While the program starts locally and currently serves NYC families, there are some tips that Misty offers to busy families to incorporate dance into their schedules. "It can be something as simple as playing music in the house regularly, turning on PBS and experiencing a plethora of arts genres, following dancers and artists on social media, and experiencing art in digestible bites," she says.

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