2015 was a groundbreaking year in ballet.
On June 30, the American Ballet Theatre made an announcement that would forever change the world of dance: Misty Copeland, one of the most famous ballerinas and biggest champions of diversity in the industry, would be promoted to the highest rank within the prestigious dance company, nearly a week after making a stellar debut as lead in ballet classic Swan Lake.
"I had moments of doubting myself, and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level," Copeland said in an emotional press conference the day of her promotion.
Copeland is the first black principal dancer, a highly coveted position, in the company's 75-year history. It's a major feat in an industry that has terribly underrepresented minority women for decades. "Even with my peers, people don’t want to talk about the statistics in their companies and in their schools because they’re afraid people are going to come down on them and they don’t want to be called racist," Rachel Moore, ABT's former executive director, said of ballet's longstanding diversity problem.
But Copeland wasn’t the only ballerina of color to make history that day.
Stella Abrera, a dynamic dancer who established a solid career as a veteran soloist with ABT for 14 years, also nabbed the role of principal dancer, becoming the first appointed Filipina-American woman.
Her unexpected rise was praised by Asian-American and Filipino publications around the world and sparked an outpouring of support from Filipina dancers on social media who used the hashtag #PinayPower to show their pride. Abrera’s success was a powerful reminder that in a field that has little racial or ethnic diversity, they too could ascend to the highest ranks one day.
However, being among the "first" to break a racial barrier in ballet, a world dominated by young, privileged white women, wasn't anything that Abrera ever gave much thought to, especially growing up in a diverse community in Pasadena, California.
In a December 11 interview with Southern California Public Radio, Abrera revealed something unique as a woman of color in the ballet world: She never felt isolated because of her race:
Ever since my promotion I’ve been asked if it’s affected my career, and to be honest, in the 20 years that I’ve been a professional dancer at American Ballet Theatre, it’s never been an issue for me. It’s not positive, it’s not negative, it’s been irrelevant. I’ve had the luxury of fully focusing on the work. … So that’s why at first I found it a little disconcerting that my ethnicity was being brought up, but now I’m seeing a lot on my social media — I’m noticing that a lot of young dancers who are Filipino American, they show support for me and I find that very heartwarming.
Abrera may not have felt that her skin color was a barrier in ballet, but she faced other hardships on her tumultuous journey to the top.
After becoming principal dancer at 37 — way past the prime age of a typical ballerina — and surviving a devastating injury that nearly prevented her from walking several years ago, Abrera has said she is grateful to dance at all.
The unexpected turn downhill: a rising ballerina’s worst nightmare
In a candid and touching interview with BuzzFeed in October, Abrera recounted the frustrating day in 2008 when she feared her career, which was taking off like a rocket, could suddenly come to a screeching halt:
"It started after a very tough rehearsal," says Stella. "I noticed my calf was aching, and I said, whatever, just push through it." However, she began to lose strength in her muscles and she grew weaker. "It eventually got so bad, the ache, that my leg just was not functioning properly."Despite seeing several doctors and physical therapists, a proper diagnosis eluded Stella for nine months. "No MRI could tell me anything," she says. "No nerve connection tests, no ultrasound, nothing. All the doctors were shrugging their shoulders like, ‘Sorry, this is a mystery.’"
Abrera eventually discovered the unrelenting pain was the result of a back injury and sciatic nerve damage, causing severe pain and numbness in the back of her leg. The condition was likely caused by long, grueling hours of rehearsal and performances she endured from dancing professionally since she was 17 years old.
In the blink of an eye, she went from a rising star to suddenly sidelined at the peak of her career, a roller coaster that caused her to hit rock bottom, both emotionally and physically. For months she couldn't walk without being in constant pain — much less dance — as her calf continued to lose strength.
In a leap of faith, at the recommendation of a doctor, Abrera began taking cortisone injections to help alleviate the pain in her back and spine, and the slow, tedious 18-month road to recovery began.
But the hardest part was regaining confidence that she could reach her peak again after such a major setback. In an industry where women have short-lived careers and typically retire in their 30s, relearning basic dance steps at age 29 felt like climbing Mount Everest. "At my lowest point, the grannies on the street with their walkers were faster than me," Abrera recalled.
Rising from rock bottom to the top of ballet
Fueled by a deep inner strength to press forward in the midst of a tumultuous storm, Abrera kicked into overdrive. She was determined to dance again in any capacity and never focused on what she'd do career-wise if she couldn't fulfill her lifelong passion.
Over time, each baby step made helped her feel a little more empowered. On good days she muddled through rehab in aches and pain yet found the strength to endure. On exceptional days she pushed herself to exercise, and eventually rehabilitated her legs to the point needed to dance at her previous level, a level in which she once amassed thousands of calf raises over the years.
When she finally clawed her way back to the stage in 2009, she emerged as a stronger, more skillful dancer driven by a new mindset:
"Instead of dancing to fulfill my girlhood dream of being a principal, I focused simply on becoming the best dancer and artist I could possibly be," she said in an August interview with the online dance magazine Dance Informa. "I didn’t even consider promotion. Dancing, at any rank, is an incredible gift. I vowed to never forget that."
Immersing herself in dance like she never left, Abrera bounced back better than ever, breathing new life into each performance by changing everything from her technique to how she viewed each performance.
She moved with ethereal grace in the title role of Giselle in the Philippines' 2014 staging of the ballet classic and was lauded for the complexities of her dance solo and radiant presence as the Lilac Fairy in ABT’s production of Sleeping Beauty this year.
Her most triumphant moment came in May, when after years of dancing in the background and never getting the opportunity to lead a performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, she rose to the challenge of filling in for principal dancer Polina Semionova in ABT's long-anticipated debut of Giselle.
Abrera's spectacular performance, which caught the attention of ABT directors and helped her land the principal dancer position a month later, earned the praise typically reserved for the most esteemed ballerinas.
"Some of her dancing was luminous, and all of it was stylish and heartfelt; but above all in Act II, where the dead Giselle dances to save her living lover, Albrecht, from death, she made it clear that dance was a spiritual act," the New York Times raved in a review. "Her steps were filled with yearning for him and devotion to dance itself."
Through a long, turbulent journey to the very top ranks of ballet, one filled with a nearly career-ending injury, a string of relapses, and times of harrowing emotional distress, no other theme echoes louder in Abrera’s life than her uncanny perseverance and resilience in pursuit of her dreams.
"All the things that have happened pointed to me not being chosen [as a principal dancer]," Abrera told NBC News. "And if that happened, no one would have batted an eye. I wouldn't have. It's crazy at 37, this doesn't happen in our world. Thank God, it did. It's a wonderful thing."