After I discovered I might be taking up the function of Swan Queen in Swan Lake, I used to be thrilled however utterly shocked and overwhelmed. Swan Lake was the primary ballet I carried out with American Ballet Theatre once I was 19 years outdated. I used to be within the corps de ballet again then, a minor function. For every efficiency, I used to be informed to mud my pores and skin with white basis and powder to slot in with the white dancers, a standard follow in classical corporations for the few Black dancers in what is named “ballet blanc” repertoire. I by no means as soon as allowed myself to dream of dancing the lead.
Now, as I labored by way of teaching periods to arrange for the Swan Queen, I toggled between feeling able to take it on and questioning if I might actually rise to the event amid not simply the doubts and pressures of the ballet group however, extra importantly, my very own. Of all of the Black ballerinas who’ve labored and dreamed and by no means bought this opportunity, why ought to it’s me? I at all times wished the chance, and I knew I labored arduous to earn it, however might I pull this off ? Was I actually worthy?
One thing was off the day of my first rehearsal in Brisbane, Australia, the place my first efficiency of the ballet would happen. I started to really feel faraway from my physique. Doubt stored creeping in. The whole lot all of a sudden grew to become very actual.
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By the point rehearsal started, I fairly actually started to panic. Because the music performed, and the notes sounded, my thoughts and physique drifted out of sync. It was as if I have been 19 years outdated once more, within the corps, making ready to bop Swan Lake for the very first time. I felt like an impostor, an intruder. Who did I believe I used to be, standing within the wings about to jeté onto the stage because the Swan Queen? My physique was rejecting being the lead.
The string part constructed to a crescendo, and I leapt out onto the stage, touchdown within the ballet’s first iconic swan pose. My coronary heart was pounding. I stepped into the primary of a number of piqué arabesques, and the remaining was a blur. I went by way of the motions and bought by way of the pantomime sequence the place the Swan Queen tells Prince Siegfried the story of how she was captured by an evil sorcerer and became a swan and solely a vow of real love can break the spell and return her to human type. My inner evil sorcerer was the nagging doubt “Can I be the ballerina?”
I exited the stage in a little bit of a trance. I sat within the wings feeling misplaced as I watched the 24 swans—the corps dancers—take the stage. That’s the place you belong, my thoughts was telling me. Who’re you to be the Swan Queen?
I attempted to internalize a mantra from my good friend and mentor, Raven Wilkinson, some of the essential Black ballerinas on the planet. It was Raven who informed me, “I come right here as an artist and a human being.” However in that second, I might solely give attention to the truth that I used to be the primary Black girl at American Ballet Theatre to bop this function. And if I failed, I might most likely be the final.
That’s how fragile alternatives typically are for individuals of coloration. Your failures shut the door for anybody aspiring to observe in your footsteps. I tried to push these ideas out.
By some means, I made it by way of the rehearsal. The creative workers had a ton of notes, as they typically do, however whereas they have been targeted on technical points, I used to be targeted on not disappointing each Black dancer who got here earlier than me or ruining the possibilities of those that would possibly come after me.
I nonetheless had two full weeks to take all of it in. I stored reminding myself of what Raven had additionally informed me: “I knew that Swan Queen was excellent for you due to your freedom and creature-like use of your again and arms, that are really distinctive.” I wanted her willpower and religion greater than ever.
Raven could possibly be arduous to get in contact with, even after we have been in the identical time zone. She didn’t personal a cellular phone, nor did she have name ready on her residence cellphone, so I typically bought a busy sign once I’d strive her. Nonetheless, I felt she was one hundred pc with me. The factor about Raven is that when she spoke, her phrases had nice impression on me, so if she informed me, as she had earlier than I got here to Australia, that I used to be prepared, then I used to be prepared. I simply needed to imagine it myself.
The evening of the efficiency, I stood stage proper in a pool of blue gentle, ready for the stage supervisor to present me my cue to enter. I had ready. I used to be in my physique. I let the beautiful notes of the Tchaikovsky rating fill my spirit. I ran out onto the stage, and the viewers erupted into applause. Raven’s constructive encouragement and vitality adopted me to the stage, and I felt proper at residence.
Misty Copeland is a celebrated ballerina and the primary African American girl to be a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre.
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