I can recollect only one instance where western classical ballet was danced by a whole (although modest in size, obviously for logistic reasons) corps de ballet in Goa: it was a visiting troupe from the erstwhile Soviet Union sometime in the 1980s. It is a world we have little contact with, and more is the pity.

In the ballet world, two names are in the news lately: Misty Copeland and Michaela DePrince. Both are viewed as “black” ballerinas in a historically “white” art form, with the odds heavily stacked against them for this unfair perception, and nevertheless rising to the top of their profession despite this.

Misty Copeland (born 1982) describes her experience in her memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina”: “Ballet has long been the province of the white and wealthy. Our daily toe-crushing exercises make pointe shoes as disposable as tissues, but they can cost as much as $80 a pair. I came from a family that didn’t always have enough food to eat, let alone money to spend on a hobby, and it wasn’t until I was 13 years old that I could even take my first ballet class. Most of my dance peers had grown up immersed in the arts, putting on their first tutus not long after they learned to talk. They had summered in Europe, while I didn’t get my first passport until I was 17. Their families had weekend homes. I had spent part of my adolescence living on the floor of a shabby motel with my single mom.

But I also stood out in another, even more profound, way. I was a little brown-skinned girl in a sea of whiteness.” When at 19 she was promoted to American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet, she felt “constantly judged” by the other dancers and even some of the instructors. When due to puberty her weight increased and her body began to fill out making her breasts fuller, she was diplomatically told that she needed to “lengthen”, “just so that you don’t lose your classical line.” Nutritionist advice was suggested, but at her own cost, something she couldn’t afford in New York.

“My backup plan was to out-dance everyone, to be so technically perfect and unbelievably lyrical in my movements that all anyone would be able to see was my talent, not my breasts or curves or the colour of my skin,” she writes. It worked. “They came to see things my way, that my curves are part of who I am as a dancer, not something I need to lose in order to become one.”

Misty Copeland

Copeland was up against a racial stereotype, that black people somehow do not possess the ‘physiognomy’ required of western classical ballet. I was horrified to hear a similar statement made at a prestigious music conference, that Indian children could not start learning to play stringed orchestral instruments as early as their South-East Asian counterparts, because “their physiognomy is different”! Such absurd assertions fly in the face of any scientific evidence, but are still quite deep-rooted. I challenged the person who said this, but he was unmoved.

This June, Copeland became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history.

Michaela DePrince is an even more “unlikely ballerina”. The life story of this 20-year old reads like a film script, and it is not surprising that MGM this year acquired the movie rights to DePrince’s own book “Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina”. Born to a Muslim family (her birth-name is Mabinty Bangura) in Sierra Leone, she was orphaned at 3 in its civil war; her father was shot by rebels and her mother died from starvation. In the orphanage where she was taken to by her uncle, she was called “devil’s child” as she suffered from vitiligo. Salvation then literally “blew” into her life, a magazine swept by the breeze to the orphanage gate, with a “fairy-like creature”, a white ballerina in pink tutu, on its cover. “I’d never seen anything like that before, so I took the cover off and put it in my underwear because I had nowhere else to put it… I kept the picture with me every day until I got adopted. It kept me going and believing and looking forward to something, because I was going through so much at the time. I thought I was just worth nothing and nothing’s going to happen. This person in the photograph symbolized hope for me.”

Her one friend, a kind teacher who explained the picture to her, was hacked to death by rebels before DePrince’s eyes, and she narrowly escaped a similar fate. An American Jewish couple adopted her and took her to the US, where she began realising her dream. She encountered discrimination too: at eight, she was told she couldn’t play Marie in The Nutcracker because “America’s not ready for a black girl ballerina,” and a teacher said that “black dancers weren’t worth investing money in”.

Michaela DePrince in Black Swan, Photo by Rachel Neville_4(1)

Today, she is the only dancer of African origin in the Dutch National Ballet, Amsterdam, having joined the company last year. Once labelled “devil’s child” and perceived as unsightly, she was featured in a two-page spread in Glamour magazine’s August issue. This year, she finally traced the dancer on the magazine cover who inspired her: French prima ballerina Magali Messac, now retired, and a meeting is in the offing. “Michaela’s story—the magic of it, but equally the hard work and belief in her dream—is remarkable,” says Messac in a press interview. “She will inspire other young girls to dream high and believe in themselves.”

This is true of both Copeland and DePrince. Both have made history, defying overwhelming odds and demeaning stereotypes to get where they are today. Neither succumbed to the notion that western classical dance was “alien to their culture”, whatever that might mean. Copeland and DePrince are role models, “opening the doors for others”, amply proving that race, genetics, and geographic location have nothing to do with the ability to excel in anything.

Ultimately, what makes all the difference is the quality of teaching, how early it is imparted, and how avidly it is desired and imbibed by the recipient. Nothing else matters.

(An edited version of this article was published on 25 October 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)