Yet with all of this, classical ballet dancer Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theatre has managed to navigate this elite world and, in 2007, even etched out a spot as a soloist -- the first African-American female to do so. She was even the featured dancer on legendary singer Prince's Welcome 2 America tour this past year.
However, it's not Copeland's ethnicity that makes her unique; it's another "cultural" attribution that sets her apart: her voluptuous body. At 5'2 and 103 pounds, the petite, curvy ballerina doesn't feel pressure to represent for all African Americans but says it'd be nice to see more ballet dancers who looked like her.
We chatted with 28-year-old Copeland about her experiences with this grueling art form.
BLACK VOICES: You began ballet at 13 -- considerably late for that industry -- and you've said you have to get the body and mold it before it changes. Please explain.
MISTY COPELAND: Well, I think that it's more important with women to start early because we go through puberty, and it's harder to get your body to adapt [to ballet dancing]. When you're working with something like ballet, you're changing the way your body is shaped and how your body grows.
I wouldn't say that ballet is a natural art form because most people are working against what their bodies are supposed to be doing. Few people have naturally flexible bodies and can do certain things. We still end up with major problems at the end of our careers. It's beautiful and I think that my body has adapted very easily to this form of dance. I don't think my body would've been any less curvy, because it's genetic.
BV: You are a curvy young lady; what has been your experience?
MC: It's been a struggle, especially corps de ballet sets (the large group of dancers). When I was in the corps de ballet, my body was harder to deal with because they made the clothes for the size they expected dancers to be and look like. And just coming to terms with looking around when we're training and not seeing women who look like me. It was harder when I was a teenager.
MC: When I was around 24-ish, I stopped [being uncomfortable]. I think [that in] being a woman, in general, it's hard to be completely comfortable and confident with how you look. Especially in an art form like this when it is about your physicality and what you look like. It's difficult being critiqued and judged on that basis.
I had a breakthrough with accepting my body. I surrounded myself with other women who looked like me and who were successful -- other successful black women. Even though they weren't in my field, having that motivation helped me to come to terms and accept myself.
BV: Have you felt pressure to lose weight or had to deal with any mental or physical challenges with accepting your body?
MC: Absolutely! I felt pressure to lose weight. It's kind of hard to avoid that when you're in this field. I never dealt with an eating disorder in any way, and yes, I was told many times to lose when I joined the company. I learned to accept my body but I also learned to take care of it, which is hard. Most people who join a company like American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet have some problems because they're young, alone and don't have much guidance, and it's easy to fall into having an eating disorder.
BV: Are eating disorders commonplace in the ballet world? Is that something you see your peers struggling with?
MC: When someone is doing something like that, it doesn't matter what you say to them. They have to find it by themselves. I don't think it's as common as some people may want it to be, but it's there.
BV: Prince featured you in his 2009 'Crimson and Clover' video and you even toured with him last summer. How was that experience?
MC: He's been a mentor to me and a friend. I'm very lucky to have him in my life and he's introduced me to other artists like Esperanza Spalding, who I adore. It was a great opportunity. It's important to expose that world to what I do. I want people to know that classical ballet is what I'm here to do and, hopefully, will open up other doors in the ballet world. Even with this, I'm not distracted and classical ballet is still my priority.
Prince - Crimson and Clover (Official Video) by Lemongol
BV: What message do you have for other black women or curvy women who want to be classical ballet dancers?
MC: I've seen so many talented black women who come in with the perfect physique and still not get into this company or another one. I think it's probably about timing as well, but it definitely may have been because they were too dark. I think I was lucky to get in when I did and maybe they felt that position was filled.
A young black girl came into the company, and she's fair-skinned like me. We have yet to see a dark-skinned woman come into the company. It's a very touchy subject, in general. Some black women give up and don't do classical ballet dance. I want them to know that times are changing. The more people we have auditioning, they can't deny talent.
To learn more about Misty Copeland, visit mistycopeland.com.