Misty Copeland made history this summer when she became the American Ballet Theatre’s first female African-American principal dancer. Her accomplishments inspire young African-American dancers everywhere, including Syracuse native Tevin Johnson.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Copeland had a tough start. After a string of stepfathers and relocating several times, Copeland’s family finally settled in Los Angeles. She started taking ballet at age 13, when a teacher recommended that she take a community class offered at the Boys and Girls Club.
Within months Copeland was on pointe shoes — a truly unheard of feat. She moved in with her ballet teacher, and at age 15 auditioned for a competitive, intensive class with the San Francisco Ballet. She then joined the American Ballet Theatre in 2000, where she went on to become a soloist and then the first African-American principal dancer in the company’s 75-year history.
Tevin Johnson, 19, knew about Copeland before she was famous. He looked to her for inspiration when he began pursuing ballet at age 14. At his first dance school, he was the only African-American student. As a student at Corcoran High School and later at Manlius Pebble Hill, he also participated in basketball, track and hip-hop.
When Johnson first started ballet lessons, he was dissatisfied with the lack of diversity and sought a more diverse environment. He joined the Dance Theater of Syracuse, an African-American dance school in the Westcott area.
“I immediately felt more comfortable,” Johnson recalled. “There was a sense of community.”
In 2012, Johnson auditioned and was accepted into the summer intensive at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. The prestigious program is meant to train young dancers for a professional career. When Johnson returned to Alvin Ailey the following summer, he met Copeland when she gave a speech on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. He was able to get his picture taken with his hero that night.
Upon returning to Syracuse for his senior year of high school, Johnson was profiled on WSYR-Channel 9’s Carrie Lazarus Presents: Extraordinary People and Places of Central New York as a scholarship recipient. The feature and scholarship were created by WSYR news anchor Lazarus to help students like Johnson achieve dreams of studying fine arts, and to profile young, talented locals.
During the taping, Lazarus and personnel in the editing room were impressed by Johnson’s skill and talent. Unknown to Johnson, they decided to pass some of his dance footage on to Copeland, who remembered him from their earlier meeting.
Johnson connected with Copeland on social media, which led to a mentorship conducted mostly via email. Johnson said he emails Copeland whenever he feels discouraged, faces challenges or has anxieties about pursuing ballet professionally.
Even with this advantage, Johnson said he still worries about succeeding as a male, black dancer. At 5 feet 2 inches with a small build, Johnson does not have the traditional body type of a male dancer. “I have a very feminine body, but a masculine quality,” he said.
Cheryl Wilkins-Mitchell, co-director of the Dance Theater of Syracuse, said choreographer George Balanchine’s ideal for the ballet body shaped the future participants of dance, and provided some of the first opportunities for black ballerinas to perform with major companies.
“Balanchine loved the African body,” Wilkins-Mitchell said. Still, she said, this is a challenge many African-American dancers face.
Johnson said Copeland encourages him by sharing her own experiences about her body struggles. “She taught me that my body is my body,” he said. Copeland encourages Johnson to accept his unique type, and to concentrate on how he can maximize its advantages within dance.
Johnson said that when he doubts himself, Copeland reassures him. She even wrote a college recommendation for him.
Johnson, now a junior dance major at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said he will continue to follow in Copeland’s footsteps. “Without role models like her,” he said, “I wouldn’t have any interest in trying ballet.”
Genelle Levy is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism program at Syracuse University.