Happy International Women’s Day! This is the day where women are celebrated for their strength, beauty, accomplishments, and just being the special woman they are. As this year’s campaign theme is #balanceforbetter, we too want to celebrate the inspiring women of dance who have balanced their artistry and voice of empowerment as they pirouette to success in the dance world. Here are some of the most inspiring women dancers of our era!
It’s not all diamond tiaras and glittered tutus for Misty Copeland, but her journey is no less of a hard but inspiring one. Struggling to survive in a small, shabby motel with five other siblings and her single mom, Copeland is a dancing prodigy with the determination to bring race equality and colour diversity in ballet.
In 2015, she broke cultural barriers and became the first African-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. In the same year, she was also named TIME 100, TIME’s annual list of the world’s most influential people.
As one of the few black female dancers representing major US brands in national ad campaigns, Copeland hopes more companies see the value in having women of colour as their public face. Her partnership with big companies and brands such as Under Armour, Dannon, Naked Juice, Coach and Seiko has created a global awareness for the diversity of race and colours in dance.
There was also a Mattel Barbie doll released in her likeness that serves to empower young girls growing up and seeing a brown Barbie as a ballerina. Staying true to her strong beliefs, Copeland made sure everything was represented authentically. No one lightened her skin tone or shaded her nose.
Although she has come a long way in her journey, she remains committed to mentoring dancers of colour and diversifying ballet. Her latest accomplishment is her newest book called Life In Motion, her acting debut in the Disney movie, The Nutcracker and The Four Realms, and launching her new clothing collection with Under Armour.
What’s next for Misty Copeland? Whatever it may be, it’s going to be as explosive as her grand jetés.
Rebecca Lee Yen Yen
With her striking red hair and dynamic dance moves, Rebecca Lee Yen Yen, also popularly known as Becky, is not a woman easily missed. Leading as Malaysia’s top line dancer, she is now a world-renowned line dance choreographer and has conducted various touring workshops in the United States and Europe.
She has won numerous competitions such as being awarded champion in Asia Pacific Dance Explosion 2014 (Malaysia), first runner up in United Country Western Dance Council 2014 (Nashville) for advance and showcase category, and many more. Her biggest achievement thus far is winning champion in World Dance Masters in 2018 in Advance graduate to be Allstar (the highest division). She also notably broke the record as the only Asian in the Allstar division.
Rebecca is known to be a versatile dancer as she is well trained in other street dance styles as well. She has participated and won awards on various television shows such as So You Think You Can Malaysia, Season 1 (Top 20); winning champion with her dance crew, Racken Force in Astro Battleground 2007; awarded first runner up with dance crew, De’OlbieZ, in Clash Of The Kingz 2014; and first runner up in World Hip Hop (Malaysia) 2015.
One of her greatest achievement lies in her all-female dance crew, Soul Krazy, where she led the team and they ultimately won champion in Astro Battleground 2010. As it was the first all-female dance crew to have been awarded champion in the competition, it has empowered and opened up many opportunities for Malaysian female dancers in the dance industry.
What drives her to be the top strong woman dancer in Malaysia? She hopes to prove to everyone that a woman like her can be successful even with a professional career in dance and to become someone someday. Her advice to all women dancers is, “Be strong and believe in yourself that nothing is impossible. And always stay positive.”
Currently, she runs her own dance studio, Passion Danz Studio where she mentors and coaches the local dancers in Malaysia. Fun fact: Every year Rebecca holds the biggest line dance themed party in Malaysia. You will be amazed at how age really does not matter in dance because you will see the youngest of kids to retirees dancing away on the dance floor. Stay tuned for updates on Rebecca’s party this year!
Wendy Whelan has not only graced the stage with her beautiful lines and extended limbs but has also been seen as a figurehead for veteran dancers. The former principal dancer of New York City Ballet promotes the urgent need for financial support and career services for ballerinas who are nearing retirement.
Currently, at the age of 51, she has been newly appointed to be New York City Ballet’s associate artistic director. With her undertaking in a leadership role, her position has sent a powerful message in the ballet world where women are still underrepresented in top jobs in the dance industry. Her responsibility includes conceiving and planning seasons; commissioning new work; and working closely with dancers in the rehearsal studio. This will include both teaching class and coaching works in the company’s repertory.
She intends to exercise her control over programming and commissioning new works that spotlight more women choreographers, creating more diversity on stage, and pushing forward bigger and more daring ideas to the audience.
Whelan is living proof that a woman can be both an exceptional dancer and a powerhouse leader.
The woman behind the awkward stumbling ballerina in her pointe shoes, cringy ‘biscuit’ feet, and a fiercely determined look is none other than Shelby Williams, a soloist with Royal Ballet of Flanders. Her comic relief videos have become a sensational hit and has grown to be a platform that destigmatizes issues of mental health in the ballet world.
The concept was stemmed from her student days as she struggled with self-criticism in dance. Seeking help from a sports psychologist, she learnt to enjoy dancing without taking herself too seriously. Her solution? She would overexaggerate her mistakes and make her classmates laugh. This coping mechanism is carried into her professional career and now into her online platform.
As ballerinas are required to look effortless and perfect when dancing, this mindset is often brought into the dancer’s personal life. To tackle this issue, Williams started opening up about her struggles with anxiety through the Biscuit Ballerina blog. She also interviews professional dancers while giving them the opportunity to share their own physical and mental struggles with other training dancers around the world.
She strongly believes that the less discussed issue of mental health is just as important as physical health to maintain a long-lasting dance career. Readers are now able to reach out and access resources on her blog that includes a list of articles and mental health professionals who specialize in dance.
Spreading her message beyond the online community, Williams gave an insightful talk on perfectionism at the 2018 P(our) Symposium and taught workshops at ballet schools in the United States.
Now, excuse me as I submit my embarrassing failed dance videos to Biscuit Ballerina’s #professionalbiscuitchallenge.
I am proud to say we are unable to include all the empowering women in dance here because the list can go on and on! If you’d like us to feature more dancers, comment below who you would like to get featured (local or overseas dancers are all welcomed!) Once more, go girl power and lets #balanceforbetter!
Grace Rundi is a dancer and writer. With her love for the arts, she continuously searches for her artistic voice, spotting muses, and discovering inspirations.