Black Ballerinas in Picture Books: Rupturing the Color Line in American Children’s Literature

By Dr. Lashon Daley, PhD

Headshot of Lashon Daley

Photo courtesy of artist
[ID: Lashon, African American woman with waist-length long brown locs smiling broadly in an orange blouse with an orange bow tied at the neck against a backdrop of books.]

Over the past fifty years, as a result of the call for diverse children’s books, there has been a steady trickling in of publications featuring protagonists of color. As a Black girlhood studies scholar, I pay close attention to picture books that portray Black girls. More specifically, I intersect dance studies and children’s literary studies in order to explore the representation of Black ballerinas in autobiographical and biographical children’s picture books. In doing so, I demonstrate how these texts help to define what it means to be young, Black, and female in ballet as this social identity becomes characterized within African American children’s literature.

In my larger body of work, I explore books published before the start of 2020, which include Debbie Allen’s Dancing in the Wings (2000), Misty Copeland’s Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird (2014), Kristy Dempsey’s A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream (2014), Michaela DePrince’s Ballerina Dreams: A True Story (2017), and Michelle Meadow’s Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins (2019). In this article, I focus on Copeland’s Firebird because of its notable influence within the industry.

Winner of the 2015 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and the 2015 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award New Writer Honor, Copeland’s Firebird tells the story of a young dancer who desires Copeland’s balletic success. However, the protagonist does not have confidence in her abilities as a ballet dancer. She believes that there is a space between her aptitudes and that of Copeland’s that is “longer than forever” (Copeland 2014, 1). At first read, the narrative seems to allude to a young Copeland speaking to her adult self, desiring to know the outcome of her current labor. Will she fulfil her dream and become a prima ballerina?

Illustrated by Christopher Myers, the first image of Firebird features the protagonist dressed in bright-yellow fitted clothing performing an arabesque. Upstage of the protagonist is an enlarged image of Copeland also in arabesque. Copeland is dressed in her fiery-red firebird costume—perhaps a foreshadowing of who the girl will someday be. In the next scene, the protagonist stares into her mind’s eye, imagining Copeland in a white costume with an accompanying tiara. The scene depicts a leaping Copeland soaring over the East River against the New York City skyline at night. Here, the protagonist likens Copeland to the “sky and clouds and air” with feet that are as “swift as sunlight” (Copeland 2014, 3). It is Copeland’s elongated leap that the protagonist imagines stretching “across the skyline like the daylong sun over the horizon” (Copeland 2014, 3). By the following page, the protagonist’s visualization has ended, and she returns back to reality, where she is alone and downcast. She is seated on the floor staring at the ground with her knees pulled to her chest. She believes herself to be as “gray as rain/heavy as naptime, low as a storm pressing on rooftops” (Copeland 2014, 4). It is because of these beliefs, the protagonist doubts that she could ever “hope to leap the space between”—that is the space between her and Copeland (Copeland 2014, 5).

On the following pages, the girl’s hope is partially realized as she comes face-to-face with Copeland. Kneeling in order to make eye contact with the narrative’s young protagonist, Copeland places her downstage arm on the girl’s downstage shoulder. Copeland then encourages the protagonist to “let the sun shine on your face” before proceeding to tell of her story of becoming a prima ballerina (Copeland 2014, 7).

As a Black ballerina in a White ballet world, Copeland’s life narrative is also one saturated with exclusion, isolation, and marginalization. In her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Copeland narrates how she not only navigated poverty and hunger in her childhood, but moreover, continuously navigated her blackness in a classical ballet world that is impoverished of Black dancing bodies, and as a result, hungry to consume them. Like the young protagonist she encourages in Firebird, as a young dancer, Copeland also struggled to close the gap between who she was—a fatherless mixed-race Black girl without a stable home—and who she imagined herself to be—a principal ballerina performing the most prestigious classical ballet roles.

Dance Scholar Brenda Gottschild acknowledges that there was a paradigm shift in the twentieth century regarding the Black dancing body. She argues that while “the black dancer remains Other, the black body, through dance, sports, fashion, and everyday lifestyle, become the last word in white desirability” (7). She specifies that what was once seen as “‘coonish’” about the Black body is now seen as “Cool” with a capital C (7). While Gottschild goes on to complicate how the Black dancing body can, in some aspects, possess whiteness when it is trained in “white-based ballet,” it is important to consider how Copeland’s Firebird enacts a kind of spillage that augments the versatility of the Black dancing body, while reifying its otherness (22). Interestingly enough, it is actually the protagonist of the text who continuously highlights her own lack despite Copeland’s grand Black female representation. Most likely spurred on by institutional racism within ballet, the protagonist figuratively projects her body as one labeled as “coon,” while labelling Copeland’s body as “Cool.” Gottschild argues that it is not the Black dancing body that has changed, it is rather our perception of it that has changed. For the young protagonist whose dismay is a result of the space between herself and Copeland—that space between coon and Cool—she must first change her perception in order to begin closing the space.

Firebird seemingly ends with both Copeland and the protagonist dressed in that same white ballet costume from the text’s earlier pages standing in sous-sus. Copeland gazes stage right, while the protagonist gazes stage left. However, it is not until upon seeing the back cover that the reader is made privy to how this story ultimately ends. On the back cover, the protagonist is centered, dressed in that same white costume she was dressed in at the end of the narrative. She is now an adult. No longer standing on demi-pointe like in her childhood balletic practice, but en pointe. Her leg is in a low arabesque with a deep cambré back. Although she is alone again, this time her aloneness does not feel like loneliness. Rather, it feels like the space she once longed to close has finally been sealed.

Copeland’s picture book creates a public record of her experience as a ballerina integrating ballet and, subsequently, diversifying the industry of children’s literature. In 2014, the year Firebird was released, out of 3,500 children’s books that were published that year, only sixty-nine were written and/or illustrated by an African or African American creator and 179 books were about Africans or African Americans. Copeland’s Firebird intersected both of those categories (a Black author and a Black illustrator), and in addition, diversified the industry by not only featuring two African American female lead characters, but two African American ballerinas. Firebird exemplifies the growing desire to make Black dancing bodies more visible, more legible, and consequently more consumable.

It also exemplifies the experience and provides language for what it means to live out a Black ballerina habitus. Black performance studies scholar Harvey Young (2010) explains that the “theory of habitus—thought in terms of a black habitus—allows us to read the black body as socially constructed and continually constructing its own self. If we identify blackness as an idea projected across a body, the projection not only gets incorporated within the body but also influences the ways that it views other bodies (20). Young goes on to detail how “black habitus has been shaped by the legacy of black captivity and other manifestations of discrimination within society: racial profiling and employment discrimination, among others” (21).

Black ballerinas develop not just a Black habitus, but a Black ballerina habitus that is constructed by the ways their bodies are subdued as a result of the intense training, and in the way their blackness is subdued. Because of their race, Black ballerinas are inherently relegated to the margins of the industry. That marginalization encourages them to seek support and community with other dancers who share the same or similar experiences. Then, on the rare occasion that they are able to move from the margins to the center, they are marked and categorized within the historical lineage of their position and promoted (like a saint) to the high ranks of Black history. Their legacy is then used to replicate the same system for the next Black ballerina. Firebird, I argue, is a part of the economic investment of Black ballerinas into other Black ballerinas, which shapes their world view, and the world view for those of us who read about them in picture books.

Works Cited

Copeland, Misty. Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird. Illustrated by Christopher Myers, Putnam, 2014.

Gottschild, Brenda. The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool. Springer, 2016.

Young, Harvey. Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body. University of Michigan Press, 2010.

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of In Dance.

Dr. Lashon Daley is the assistant professor of Black Children's Literature at San Diego State University. This article is excerpted from her book project, Black Girl Lit: The Coming of (R)age Performances in Contemporary U.S. Black Girlhood Narratives, 1989-2019, which charts how children's literature, film, television, and social media has helped shape our cultural understanding of what it means to be young, Black, and female in the U.S. Lashon recently received her PhD in Performance Studies with a Designated Emphasis in New Media from UC Berkeley. She also holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in Folklore from UC Berkeley. Her children’s book, Mr. Okra Sells Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, was released in February 2016.