Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy by Misty Copeland

Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy by Misty Copeland,  illustrated by Salena Barnes. Aladdin, Simon & Schuster, 2021. 9781534474246

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Collective biography

What did you like about the book?  This very attractive, oversized book presents the careers of Black dancers who have inspired Misty Copeland, herself the first female African American principal at the American Ballet Theater. The 27 stars (arranged alphabetically by last name) are each introduced to readers with a stunning and fashionable full-page portrait, done in watercolor and pen-and-ink, all in a combination of black, white, grey, and brown, against a soft, washed-out tone (sometimes, pink, purple, or yellow). These almost magical depictions, with the focus on the dancers’ strength, elegance of line, graceful arms, and gorgeous costumes, are sure to draw the eyes of all aspiring dancers. Facing each painting is a personal essay from Copeland, detailing the dancers’ careers and how they intersect with Copeland’s own story (some are friends, others are mentors or mentees, some are strangers who provided inspiration). Recurring elements echo through the essays: racism and colorism in ballet, the lack of supports and role models for Black and Brown ballerinas, the refuge provided by European countries, the important role of Black ballet schools and programs, and the heavy psychological burden of loving an art form that often did not provide love in return. Copeland’s prose is workmanlike, but does the job, and her passion and first-person experience add an element of authenticity to the essays. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? Having the essays arranged A-Z was a mistake; instead, the stories should have been arranged chronologically. This would have allowed Copeland to introduce major concepts and important events one time, eliminating the need to tell the story of the collapse of the Dance Theater of Harlem or the importance of Pointe Magazine just once, instead of having to refer back to and explain over and over again. In addition, the book’s readability is hampered by the lack of a glossary. If the audience is hardcore fans, they probably already know the meaning of paux de du or the difference between the Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet or even who George Ballanchine is, but I don’t think all young readers will be at home with this vocabulary. Although the spindly, grey, serif font is attractive, I found it hard to read and very small.

To whom would you recommend this book?  Students with a passion for ballet who want to learn about both the art form and its social context will find this book inspiring. It’s certainly a unique and honest investigation of the history of ballet. With its bold, confident, athletic, and lovely images, the book will serve as inspiration for those who are looking for their spot in the world of dance.

Who should buy this book? Middle school, high school, and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? 792.8 

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: November 26, 2021

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