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Something rare is happening tonight at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C. Two African-American dancers will star in the ballet "Swan Lake" - Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack. And as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, Copeland and Mack have something else in common, teachers who saw their potential and broke the unwritten rule that all ballet dancers should look alike.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Septime Webre, artistic director of The Washington Ballet, says 10 years ago, he was often asked why there were no African-Americans in his company.
SEPTIME WEBRE: My response was that that would remain the case until the great training grounds, the great ballet schools of America become welcoming places for nine-year-old black girls. Families need to feel that their daughter or son of color is welcomed in these big ballet academies.
BLAIR: But Webre didn't wait around. The Washington Ballet started giving classes in Anacostia, a poor, mostly black part of D.C. at an art center called THEARC.
UNIDENTIFIED BALLET TEACHER: Role it over, stretch it out.
BLAIR: Nineteen-year-old ballet student Simone Newman says Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack give her hope.
SIMONE NEWMAN: By them doing something that probably they didn't think they would be able to accomplish - that really sets the tone for other people.
BLAIR: Both Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack endured plenty of skeptics to get to this point. It's also true that it's hard for any ballet dancer to succeed, regardless of race. But a black dancer is up against a centuries-old aesthetic. The swan, for example, has to be featherweight and snow white and so, too, does her prince.
RADENKO PAVLOVICH: The prince has to be six-feet tall, blonde with blue eyes - and, you know, we were all taught that. That's how it is.
BLAIR: Radenko Pavlovich was Brooklyn Mack's first teacher. Mack is from Elgin, S.C. When he was 12, he went on a field trip to see Pavlovich's ballet company perform. Wowed by the athleticism, he told his mom he'd like to try dance. Mack says she was thrilled and took him to meet Pavlovich at his school in Columbia, S.C.
BROOKLYN MACK: She went right up to the director and said I want you to give my son a scholarship. And he said we don't even give scholarships.
PAVLOVICH: I said, well, you know, let me see how talented he is.
MACK: And I was given what's called a barre, and obviously I had no idea what I was doing.
PAVLOVICH: Yeah, I mean, he had a beautiful turnout and flexibility, but his feet were not quite up to the point.
MACK: I remember him saying to my mom that, you know, his legs are OK, but his feet are terrible.
PAVLOVICH: Only way I will do this - if Brooklyn takes classes every day.
MACK: I don't know what possessed me to agree to that, but I said OK.
BLAIR: There were no other black dancers at the school. Pavlovich says some of his colleagues told him not to waste his time with Brooklyn Mack. He not only gave Mack a scholarship, he couldn't wait to teach him.
PAVLOVICH: There was this something about his eyes that it was telling me that this kid is so - I don't know - determined - that he will do whatever he puts his mind to.
BLAIR: After about four years working with Pavlovich, Mack went on to study with the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C., apprentice with the Joffrey in Chicago and win medals at ballet competitions around the world. Mack says he couldn't have done it without Pavlovich's support.
MACK: He's kind of like a father to me, actually, and coach. I still go and train with him whenever I can.
BLAIR: Now, Brooklyn Mack is dancing the prince in "Swan Lake" at the Kennedy Center. Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, says it's about time.
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: I've known Brooklyn for a very long time, from when he was a young boy who really, you know, knew that he was a prince - you know, knew that he was Siegfried - and was constantly being told, well, you know, you should do this, or you could do that. Contemporary looks so good on you. But he had the temperament of Siegfried.
(SOUNDBITE OF SWAN LAKE)
BLAIR: In Swan Lake, Prince Siegfried falls in love with the white swan, who will be danced by American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland. Copeland took her first ballet class at a Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif. The teacher was Cynthia Bradley.
CYNTHIA BRADLEY: I mean, she's really doing something amazing, and I couldn't be more proud of her.
BLAIR: Copeland's career is a Cinderella story all its own. She was 13 when she met Bradley. Her family was living in a motel. Her mother was struggling to make ends meet. Last year, Copeland told NPR Bradley took her under her wing immediately.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MISTY COPELAND: She saw talent that she'd never experienced before, as well as just me coming from the background I did and not having the best family situation and home. And I think that she saw that ballet was going to create this amazing life for me. So Cynthia brought me into her school on full scholarship, and she also brought me into her home.
BLAIR: Meantime, back at THEARC in Washington, D.C., students were invited to watch a dress rehearsal of "Swan Lake." Thirteen-year-old Sydney Campbell says she's been taking classes here since she was five. She wants to join a professional company someday. As an African-American, she says, Brooklyn to Mack and Misty Copeland are making that a possibility.
SYDNEY CAMPBELL: Now it's showing that people are actually accepting us - accepting all kinds.
BLAIR: As Brooklyn Mack puts it, meaningful change always takes time. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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