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Misty Copeland and ballet’s future

July 2, 2015

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Ballerina Misty Copeland in a promotional image for Under Armour. (Photo via Under Armour)

Ballerina Misty Copeland made history Tuesday by becoming the first female African-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in New York, the premier classical dance company in the United States.

Her promotion is not only historically significant, but adds another achievement to what has been a standout career for the 32-year-old sensation. It’s also a major investment for the future of dance by ABT.

Copeland’s level of mainstream fame is rare for American ballet dancers. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see her perform on stage, there’s a good chance you’ve seen her in a television commercial or an advertisement.

Her biggest endorsement deal is with Under Armour, where she gained national exposure in the company’s “I Will What I Want” ad campaign last year. It was a key part of a push to increase Under Armour’s promotion of women’s merchandise, which accounts for $500 million of its $3 billion in revenue, ESPN reported last year.

A popular commercial featuring Copeland went viral, reaching more than 8 million views on YouTube.

With Copeland making headlines this week, the deal is another big win for the sports apparel company in 2015.

Stephen Curry earned the NBA season MVP earlier this year before leading his team to a title and golfer Jordan Spieth won the first two major PHA tournaments of the year. Both have endorsement deals with Under Armour.

All of this national exposure, along with her incredible talent and renowned performances, made her an obvious choice for promotion, but ABT is doing more than taking advantage of their star’s current marketability.

For years, ballet has struggled to feature and develop minority dancers. Promoting a superstar like Copeland is essential if ABT wants to draw more followers and inspire participation in future generations, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out in its coverage earlier this week.

But her push is also part of the company’s understanding that it needs to reach new and diverse audiences in order for the art form to stay relevant.

In 2013, ABT launched an initiative called Project Plié, hoping to expand the demographic of children in ballet classes. As the initiative moves forward, newcomers with different backgrounds now have Copeland to look up and relate to as they learn to dance.

Ballet could definitely benefit from a new wave of dancers and fans. Attendance at ballet performances fell across the country, from 13.5 million in 2002 to 9.6 million in 2012, according to a National Endowment for the Arts survey of participation in the arts. Other, less formal styles of dance saw interest and attendance increase during that time, however.

For story ideas, find any local companies or dance schools in your area and ask if Copeland’s fame has affected their business in the last few years. What do they expect moving forward?

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