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Misty Copeland becomes first African-American principal in American Ballet Theatre's history

In this Sept. 3, 2014 photo released by ABT, Misty Copeland performs in "Swan Lake," at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Queensland, Australia.
In this Sept. 3, 2014 photo released by ABT, Misty Copeland performs in "Swan Lake," at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Queensland, Australia.(Darren Thomas / Associated Press)

She did it!

The American Ballet Theatre announced Tuesday that Misty Copeland would become the first African-American principal ballerina in the company's 75-year history.

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The company announced the promotions of Copeland and of ballerina Stella Abrera to principal -- the highest rank of dancers, who perform the lead roles -- will be effective Aug. 1. The news release also announced the promotions of several company dancers to soloists and mentioned that two principal dancers from other companies would be joining ABT.

But the focus of the media attention will be the 32-year-old Copeland's historic achievement. That's partly because the New York-based American Ballet Theatre isn't just an ordinary company. Along with the New York City Ballet, it occupies the very top echelon of dance troupes in the U.S.

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And it's partly because of her celebrity status; not only is Copeland one of the Baltimore-based Under Armour apparel company's sponsored athletes, she recently appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Copeland's promotion indicates not merely that she is being recognized as one of the best dancers in her company but as the best of the best.

Last year, as she was promoting her autobiography, "Life in Motion," she told the Sun that she thought her chances of being elevated to principal dancer at ABT were about 50/50.

"Every time you go on stage, it's a test, and Kevin [McKenzie, American Ballet Theatre's artistic director] is still giving me opportunities," she said.

"But becoming a principal isn't the be-all and the end-all. My career shouldn't be a reflection on whether or not I ever become a principal dancer. It should be about what I accomplish on stage."

In part, Copeland's remarks reflected the racial hurdles facing ballerinas of color, who in the all-too-recent past were expected to powder their skin before performing certain roles.

She's expected to elaborate more about those obstacles during her upcoming visit to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. She's scheduled to discuss her life during a public conversation at 1 p.m. on Aug. 1, the same day her promotion goes into effect.

But Copeland's estimate also acknowledged difficult career realities that confront all dancers.

The number of principal dance positions in any company are limited. Generally, a ballet dancer must retire before a vacancy opens up. And at age 32, Copeland is in an art form that places a premium on physical virtuosity.

She first made national headlines while she was still in her teens when she became the subject of a bizarre custody dispute between her mother and her dance coach.

Later, after becoming just the third African-American soloist in ABT's history, she became a household name on the strength of the music video she made with Prince (whom she denies having dated) as well as the iconic commercial for Under Armour.

The video focuses tightly on Copeland's strong, muscular calves and feet before pulling away to show her jumping and twirling first in a rehearsal studio, and then on stage.

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Underneath a caption reads: "I Will

"What I Want"

Yes, she did.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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