17 June 2020
By Lucy Cohen Blatter
At a Black Entertainment Television Black Girls Rock! event two summers ago in Newark, N.J., Misty Copeland presented Judith Jamison with the Living Legend Award, noting her “virtuosity in dance” and describing the modern-dance giant as a “dancer, choreographer, author, spirit.” Before handing the lifetime achievement trophy to Jamison, Copeland bowed, in a move reminiscent of the ballet bow known as “révérence.”
While the two women broke through in the dance world decades apart—Jamison, 77, as a modern dancer and later the creative director of AlvinAiley American Dance Theater, and Copeland, 37, as the first African-American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre—they’ve both managed to break the proverbial glass ceilings in their disciplines, inspiring those who look like them and those who don’t.
Neither dreamed of being professional dancers, they told Penta, partly because they didn’t see any role models who looked like them. Describing how she came to dance, Jamison says, “I can say it in one sentence: I was having fun. I was an overactive child, and I was put into a ballet school at 6 years old.”
For Copeland, too, her discovery of dance—and ballet in particular, though later in life—was surprising. “I had never heard of classical music, and I didn’t know what a ballerina was. The dream that I can most vividly remember was at 12, when I decided I wanted to be a cheerleader in the drill team at my middle school. There was nothing before that at all. It fell into my lap at 13, and I happened to be really good at it.” And, she adds emphatically, “I had mentors who led me to this profession.”
Among the mentors and inspirations Copeland names are “Lauren Anderson, Alicia Graf Mack, Virginia Johnson, Aesha Ash, so many black women….There’s no true record of the history of black dancers who came through. When I became a soloist, I only knew from word of mouth. The press releases said I was the first black soloist, but I wasn’t. Everyone had a part in some way.” Copeland says she has “followed the lead of so many leaders, whom the world isn’t aware of,” citing that as one of the reasons she’s working on a book about black ballerinas.
“ I’ve lived through these experiences, so I can lead the next generation in the right way. ”
Jamison, too, says she got where she is by being “lifted” by trailblazers and mentors such as Alvin Ailey, Pearl Primus, Carmen de Lavallade, Katherine Dunham, Mary Hinkson, and many more. But none of these disrupters, she says, were household names or faces when she first happened upon the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 1965, about seven years after it was founded. “Very rarely did you see black people on television at the time,” Jamison says.
As soon as she first saw the company perform, she tried to imitate them. Then her big break came when she met and auditioned for Ailey—the dancer, choreographer, and activist who founded the company in order to tell the African-American experience through modern dance.
Jamison catapulted to stardom after performing in Ailey’s Cry, a dance he had dedicated to his mother and to “all black women everywhere—especially our mothers.” (The dance was performed by the troupe during this year’s traveling show, which was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.)
Ailey, Jamison says, was a true disrupter who aimed to use modern dance to convey and celebrate African-American culture and experience.
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