History makers Misty Copeland, Lauren Anderson inspire little brown ballerinas in Houston

HOUSTON – They spoke about confidence and knowing thy self.  They spoke about believing in yourself, embracing your gifts and working hard to perfect your craft.  They spoke about passion, dedication, perseverance and keeping your eyes on the prize, and even though the auditorium was packed wall-to-wall with excited little girls, at times, you could hear a pin drop.  Wearing tutus and tiaras, the girls' eyes were locked on center stage as Misty Copeland and Lauren Anderson spoke about life, love of the arts and the experience of being a brown ballerina.

Houston City councilmember Dwight Boykins brought Copeland to Houston on Monday, celebrating her history-making accomplishment of becoming the first African American principal ballerina in the 75-year history of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre.  Nearly 1,000 people filled the Kingdom Builders Center in southwest Houston for "A Conversation with Misty Copeland." It was candid, it was intense and often times, funny, and the audience seemed to hang onto every word.

It was a victory for little brown girls all over the country in June when Copeland was named principal dancer at ABT. It was a long road traveled for the beautiful 32-year-old, who had humble beginnings and faced challenges during her childhood, once living in a motel with her single mother and siblings.  What took her far away from her troubles and helped her beat the odds was her love for dance.  It was more than love, it was her gift. 

On stage with Copeland was Anderson, who not only  shared an amazing gift for performance, but a similar journey.  Anderson also made history when she became the first principal African American dancer at the Houston Ballet in 1990.  At that time, Anderson was the world's only African-American prima ballerina heading a major ballet company. 

It was Copeland's day, but as Anderson spoke, Copeland intensely stared at her in admiration, often clutching her hand.

Copeland said Anderson was one of her inspirations. 

"It's been just such an interesting path for me.  At the beginning of my training and my career I was seen as this prodigy.  Once I became an adult and realized there aren't many people like me, there aren't many brown faces out there in the classical ballet world and to find out that there are people like Lauren who has created a path for me; that is what inspires me," Copeland said.

Anderson, 50, symbolically passed the torch to Copeland, tearing up while speaking of her accomplishment. 

"I think that history repeats itself.  It's a shame that it took so long.  It comes when it comes and the time it's supposed to get here, but I think now there'll be smaller gaps between when the next African-American or ballerina of color in a major ballet company becomes a principal dancer."

Anderson says she never dreamed she would be placed in the highest ranking spot at her dance company then, and definitely did not think that Copeland would make it today.  Even though she dreamed of that for them both.

"I never even thought I would be able to get a job at the Houston Ballet. I thought I had to go to the Dance Theatre of Harlem, let alone become a principal dancer.  I never thought there would be an African American principal dancer at ABT.  I knew she wanted it.  I was wanting that to unfold, but I didn't think that was going to happen," Anderson said with tears flowing. "I've seen all the stars come in, I've seen all the people come in.  I've seen all the men that were either African-American or Afro-Cuban come in.  But I've never seen a ballerina because when you think of a ballerina you think of something white and fluffy, and neither one of us are white and fluffy.  I'm warm, it's like I'm reliving when I became principal dancer again. I've got that feeling."

Anderson said she waited two days to pass after the announcement was made, allowing Copeland to let it all sink in, before calling the younger ballerina to give her some advice.  Her words were simple, yet powerful.

"Misty, you are enough just like you are," she said.

Anderson said sometimes people don't know that they are actually enough until they are about to retire.  The feeling of not measuring up was something Copeland admitted to feeling at various stages of her life.

"I felt that at 11, 13 and 30," she said. 

But ballet is about getting better, both women agreed. 

Anderson said a practicing dancer should always think of how much farther they are today than on their very first day.  It helps put things in perspective.

Both women had advice for young dancers.

"Don't worry so much.  Work really, really hard, but just don't get caught up in the small things and what people think about you.  It's so hard, I know, as a young person but I feel like that would have saved me a lot of stress," Copeland said.  She also had specific advice for minority girls.

"Stay open to any opportunity that comes your way, any dream you have, and not to allow other people's words to define your future," she said.

Lauren Burke, dancer with Urban Souls Dance Company in Houston, has been dancing for 10 years.  She could relate to both women and loved their words of encouragement.

"I really admire of course their passion, I love the quote that Lauren said, 'Working hard will just leave you mediocre.' I am actually kind of self-critical so I love how they're talking about not comparing yourself to others, living in that moment, being the music and doing the steps," Burke said. "I love the fact that you can relate to these dancers because they're human.  They've had setbacks, they've had family issues or financial issues growing up, different things, and knowing that with your passion you can achieve anything."

Anderson touched on why she thought there is a low number of brown ballerinas in comparison to others, but feels confident that the times are about to change.

"There's a moment when you see a lot of young ballerinas in school and then all of a sudden there's this gap where they fall off.  I don't know if it is socioeconomic.  If I was a parent and I saw that there are not many kids or not many jobs for my African-American child, I'm guiding them in another direction," Anderson said. "I think with this going on now and social media now, which is so on the front lines and on the front page, I think it's great that now all the kids actually get to see her [Copeland] and see that this is possible. It's not only possible with me, it's possible with you and the next, and the next, and so on."

There was a large showing of brown ballerinas in the building.  Darlette Johnson Bailey, owner of Kids in Dance Studio brought 50 of her students, all dressed in hot pink and yellow tutus, to the event. 

Johnson-Bailey is the childhood dance instructor of Houston singer Beyonce Knowles.  In various interviews, Knowles credits "Ms. Darlette" as being the person who helped bring her out of her shell.  The once-shy girl now has a "Sasha Fierce" personality, but her dance foundation is ballet.

Johnson-Bailey's "baby ballerinas" were brought to the front of the room for an impromptu ballet lesson given by Copeland and Anderson.

When asked to sum up their journey in three words, their answers were a reflection of their paths and illustrated their common bond.

"Challenging, exciting, love," Copeland said.

"Surprising, blessed, giving," Anderson said.

Performing almost every role from a Sugar Plum Fairy to Odile and Odette in "Swan Lake," and even dancing with singer Prince on tour, Copeland's done it all.  Her amazing life is chronicled in her memoir, "Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina."

Her accomplishments and tangibility makes what was once an unlikely dream for little brown girls a likely reality of what can be.

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