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When I met her, she changed the course of my life,” says Misty Copeland, referring to the late Raven Wilkinson. As many know, Copeland made history as the American Ballet Theatre’s first African American principal ballerina, starring in mesmerizing performances such as Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and Don Quixote, to name a few. But to truly be acquainted with Copeland’s story is to also acknowledge that her path toward success was not paved alone. In fact, it took a village to help her rise, along with a brilliant mentor named Raven Wilkinson who became Copeland’s guiding light.
The bond between Copeland and Wilkinson is chronicled in Copeland’s new memoir The Wind at My Back, which shares a profound story symbolizing the value of mentorship and representation. “This book tells her story, my story, and how they intertwine,” says Copeland. “Raven changed my trajectory and the way that I looked at my purpose within the ballet world, and I don’t think I would have become a principal dancer had I not met her.”
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first Black woman to perform with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of New York City, making history and doing so practically on her own during a time when the American ballet community was not designed for her advancement. Wilkinson faced deplorable acts of racism for simply pursuing her passion, but against all odds, she prevailed and ultimately inspired women like Copeland to continue building an exquisite legacy of Black dancers.
“I was the first Black woman to performed Swan Lake on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, and after my performance while I was taking my bows, Raven came out on stage to present me with flowers,” says Copeland as she shares one of her most cherished moments from her memoir. Not only was Wilkinson’s heartfelt gesture a surprise to Copeland, but also to the crowd, as ushers are traditionally the only people authorized to bestow flowers on stage. “It was just such an incredible passing of the torch moment, especially knowing that Raven never had the opportunity to be on that stage,” shares Copeland.
In addition to recently publishing The Wind at My Back, Copeland has also kept busy with a new project. The Misty Copeland Foundation’s BE BOLD program—which launched this fall with the help of the Ford Foundation— is an affordable twelve-week program in partnership with two Boys & Girls Club chapters in New York City that serves underprivileged communities of color disproportionately impacted by the lack of quality after school programs.
“BE BOLD stands for Ballet Explorations Ballet Offers Leadership Development, and its purpose is to create leaders in our community and to show that having structure, grace, and beauty in a young person’s life can help them to be better people in society,” says Copeland. BE BOLD, specifically designed for children ages 8 to 10, was inspired by Copeland’s own experience with participating in the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club as a child.
With a vast offering of introductory ballet classes, tutoring programs provided by community partner sites, and health and wellness courses, BE BOLD aims to enhance the lives of underprivileged youth in a way that fosters community and celebrates artistic expression.
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