#MistyInCuba Elevates Diversity from Center Stage as Sports Envoy

Misty Copeland is a trailblazer in the world of ballet and athleticism, with growing accolades as an entrepreneur, author, and speaker. As the American Ballet Theatre’s first African American woman to be promoted to Principal Dancer in the company’s 75 year history, she “changed the game” and stimulated new interest in ballet. Misty Copeland has become a household name and vibrant global role model, gracefully redefining what a principal dancer can look like.  She has received top honors for her contributions to classical ballet and for helping to diversify the art form by carrying on the important work pioneered by African American ballerinas and others that came before her.

Misty Copeland watches a demonstration after leading a masterclass at ‎the National Ballet School during a November 15th visit as U.S. Sports Envoy. [State Department photo]

Recognizing the strong U.S.-Cuba connections through dance and sport, Misty Copeland traveled to Havana in November 2016, leading the second official U.S. Department of State Sports Envoy Program to Cuba, following a visit by Shaquille O’Neal and Kaleb Canales; both announced by President Obama earlier in the year.  During the visit, Copeland taught a masterclass for ballet students and joined rehearsals with several professional Cuban ballet and contemporary dance companies, sharing her admiration for dance in Cuba with her Cuban counterparts.  Along the way, Copeland opened up to those she met about her unique personal story, exemplifying how diversity of race, ethnicity, geography, gender, and experience contributes to the rich fabric of the United States; and reinforces the unity of purpose through social inclusion.  She promoted healthy lifestyles, and exemplified female athleticism in dance. 

Misty Copeland joins a class with the Lizt Alfonso Dance Company during a November 17, 2016 visit as U.S. Sports Envoy. [State Department photo]

Her exchange journey serves as an example of how culture can bridge divides between peoples, and sparked meaningful dialogue with the Cuban people just before the second anniversary of the December 17th announcement to re-establish diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Both ESPN’s The Undefeated, and her biography co-author, captured highlights of the visit as part of the traveling delegation.  The power of sports and cultural diplomacy is evident in a comment by the Cuban National Ballet’s historian to local media outlet Cuba Debate, “To have Misty with us it’s like re-editing historical links, we don’t need to make any effort, the exchange between both companies flows very naturally”.

Misty Copeland watches Cuban dancers before joining a rehearsal with the Cuban National Ballet during the November 15, 2016 Sports Envoy Program. [Photo by Michael Paul Franklin/U.S. Embassy Havana]

The program also included opportunities to commemorate the United Nation’s International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) by discussing the rich contributions of people of African descent in the United States and Cuba.  By celebrating and acknowledging our shared multi-racial and multi-ethnic experiences, we build on the ties of cooperation across the African diaspora in the Americas. Misty Copeland proudly uses her cache to highlight the need for greater diversity in dance and open doors for others.  

Misty Copeland joins a group photo after a rehearsal with dancers from the Lizt Alfonso Dance Company during the November 17, 2016 Sports Envoy Program. [State Department photo]

During an interview with ESPN’s The Undefeated, Copeland reflected on the program’s timing and significance, noting, “It’s an honor to be here representing the U.S. as a black woman.  Just the imagery of seeing a room full of Cuban women and men with brown skin, doing classical ballet, and it’s not even a question for them. It’s like, ‘No, this is what we do and this is what we look like.’ That’s something that will forever stick with me.” 

Cuban dancers from the Carlos Acosta Dance Company perform during the November 16, 2016 Misty Copeland Sports Envoy Program. [State Department photo]

Misty Copeland acknowledged unfortunate global stigmas that brown people don’t belong in classical ballet during interviews with ESPN’s The Undefeated. “To see the diversity,” she said, “it’s proving all of those people wrong. It’s like, ‘No, ballet’s being done everywhere in the world.’ And it’s been going on for a long time.  And so to exclude one race, or because you look a certain way, I think is so wrong. And being here, it’s proof that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. They’re doing classical ballet here, and they’re doing it really well.”  As we look to the future we are building between the people of the United States and Cuba, we celebrate the diverse connections made that unite us.

Misty Copeland leads a masterclass for Cuban students at the National Ballet School during her visit on November 15, 2016 as U.S. Sports Envoy. [Photo by Michael Paul Franklin/U.S. Embassy Havana]

About the Author: Blakeney Vasquez is a Foreign Affairs Officer and Cultural Coordinator in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs' Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

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Misty Copeland dances during a rehearsal with the Carlos Acosta Dance Company during a November 16, 2016 visit as U.S. Sports Envoy. [Photo by Michael Paul Franklin/U.S. Embassy Havana]
Posted by Blakeney Vasquez
December 17, 2016

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