“When I heard my name called out on promotion day, it honestly felt like the skies opened up. Whether I was being featured or not over the years, I pushed myself and strived to be the best version of myself on stage and off. So, to finally make it to principal with ABT, it was a dream come true!”
Those were the words of Calvin Royal III in an interview in September. That month, he became the first Black male principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater (ABT) in more than two decades. Desmond Richardson was the ABT’s first Black male principal dancer, who went on to dance with Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
Royal, following his promotion in September, joins Misty Copeland in the roster of ABT’s principal dancers. This comes a year after Royal and Copeland became the first Black duo in ABT to dance the lead roles in ballet, by performing Ratmansky’s restaging of Harlequinade.
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Studying ballet for the first time at 14 years old, Royal was first introduced to the dance performance during a community project in his hometown but it was in middle school that he paid more attention to it. There, he auditioned with friends for the High School of Performing Arts and won a scholarship to the summer program at Philadelphia’s famous Rock School where he studied ballet.
Royal then performed in scores of dance competitions before earning a scholarship to ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in September 2006, a pre-professional ballet training program for students aged 12-17. It was tough from the start, he said.
“It was challenging on so many levels, not just being the only Black kid in my class but being away from home for the first time…I felt this sense of, ‘Ok, I’m an adult now at 17.’ That’s a lot to kind of settle in with,” Royals said. “Then, despite the longing for a sense of community, knowing that I came here because I have something that got me this scholarship to be here. I always knew that because I didn’t see people who looked like me at the top, I wanted to get there so I could help to bridge the gap and open that door.”
Royal, while at the JKO School, appeared in original works by Raymond Lukens and Jessica Lang. Joining ABT II (now ABT Studio Company) in December 2007, he became an apprentice with the main company in 2010, a corps de ballet member in 2011, and soloist in 2017. So far, Royal has danced leading roles including AFTERITE, Prince Siegfried in the White Swan and Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake and George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante. His graceful performances were born out of hard work involving rehearsals and core exercises.
“The thing about ballet, as you go to a performance and you see the beauty and the ease, it takes so much to get to that point,” Royal told SI in June. “For most people who aren’t familiar with ballet, it’s not as easy as it looks. We work hard to make it look easy.”
The award-winning dancer, who has also featured in global campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, GAP, Target, Ralph Lauren and Canali, was early this year preparing to perform with Copeland in “Romeo and Juliet” when coronavirus struck.
In an interview with All Arts, he explained what that performance meant to him. “…I was excited to finally dance my dream role. I have watched Romeo since I was a kid in the JKO school and always aspired to dance it. I would learn the choreography during my off time ‘just in case,’ and once I received the opportunity to take it on, I felt like I’d conjured it somehow and was excited to get to work! I’m still excited for the day that it will happen,” he said.
Royal recently appeared in the 2019 Pirelli Calendar alongside Misty Copeland and was named the 2020-2021 Artist-in-Residence for the Vail Dance Festival in Vail, Colorado. The American Ballet principal dancer now hopes that his story would pave the way for other Black dancers in classical art forms.
“I have seen that things are changing and hopefully there will be more Misty’s (Copeland) and Calvins in ballet companies across the U.S. and across the world,” Royal said. “I definitely see the change happening.”