Photography by Atisha Paulson
On Tuesday June 30th, The American Ballet Theater named Misty Copeland their first ever female African-American principal dancer. We profiled the beloved dancer in April.
Something to aspire to: the way Misty Copeland looks in front of a mirror. The soloist for the American Ballet Theatre is breathtakingly lovely, of course, with a tawny complexion, the kind of muscular body that makes it clear she’s a professional athlete, and a genuine smile that dispenses with any stereotypes about ballerinas being chilly. But what’s worth emulating is that she’s totally comfortable with her own reflection. She isn’t overly absorbed by it, or critical of or skittish about it. It’s just there.
On a recent Monday, Copeland’s wearing a black leotard with lace sleeves, pale pink tights, and pink pointe shoes while stretching in front of a wall of mirrors in a ballet studio at Steps on Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s her day off, but she’s just taken a class anyway; her favorite teacher teaches it, and she always tries to go if she can. She does the center splits, folding her body toward the floor. She stands and props her left leg, in a gray leg warmer, on the barre while arching her back. When she raises herself up on her toes, or onto pointe, the taut muscles in her thighs and calves are as defined as if Michelangelo had sketched them.
Copeland, who’s 32, is only the third African- American soloist the ABT’s ever had, and the first who’s poised to become a principal dancer, the highest position for a ballerina. She wasn’t always this OK with her reflection; a few years into her ballet career, she realized that it was rare for a dancer to be both curvy and black. But today she champions the fact that she’s not wispy or pale — and what it means that she’s so close to the apex of the ballet world without being any of these things “I will always have breasts,” she says. “I will always be more muscular. I will always have brown skin. I will never look like the dancer next to me.”
Later, at the nearby clothing boutique Intermix, a regular post-workout pit stop for her, she is equally matter-of-fact in front of her image in the dressing- room mirror. She’s looking for a dress to wear to the premiere of a documentary about her, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” (debuting this week at Tribeca Film Festival) or some spring clothes to add to her already overflowing wardrobe. She has so many clothes that she uses a closet-organizing app to keep track of them. “I took a photo of everything,” she says. “I really enjoyed the process.”
Everything she tries on, she evaluates quickly. “I thought I was going to love it, but I look like a nurse,” she says of a white Marissa Webb shirtdress. Of a dark blue, one-sleeve Hérve Léger bandage dress and denim-colored Jimmy Choo heels, she says, “The shoes look so good with it, but I don’t need them.” She appraises a neon orange, fringed ICB by Prabal Gurung skirt: “I couldn’t take the subway in this.”
Copeland’s the rare ballerina who wears heels. She’s walked the five blocks from the ballet studio to the boutique in a pair of knee-high Gucci boots with 4-inch stiletto heels. “Other ballerinas don't wear them because their calves are tired or the balls of their feet hurt,” she says. “They just want to relax. But I feel really great in a pair of heels.”
During the performance season, Copeland dances eight hours a day, six days a week. She’s up at 8 and in class by 10:15. To get promoted to a principal dancer, she has to prove herself by performing both soloist and principal roles. “The load is twice as much,” she says. “I’m doing so many parts right now. It’s hard to put my focus on all of them. There’s nothing to do except concentrate on the one that’s right in front of me.” ABT’s season starts May 11, but before that she’s starring in “Swan Lake” as Odette/Odile for the Washington Ballet in Washington, D.C. casting designed to challenge what is usually a ghostly all-white ballet. Copeland’s “Swan Lake” performances sold out in two days, a feat unheard for dancers who aren’t named Mikhail Baryshnikov or Natalia Makarova. “As an African- American woman, to reach these heights in a company like ABT is amazing,” she says. “Why wouldn’t I want to reach even higher?”
Her fame, in part, has been fueled by her star turns outside the ballet world. She’s danced on top of a grand piano during Prince’s 2010 Welcome 2 America tour and starred in a Diet Dr. Pepper advertisement Most recently, she was featured in a commercial for Under Armour that’s had nearly 8 million views on YouTube — she’s in a sports bra and underwear, and the ad highlights both her muscles and her grit. People recognize her on the street now; they either stare at her or hug her. Some ask her to take a selfie with them.
“It’s surreal,” she says. “There are moments when I’m like, ‘Why me?’ Am I really deserving of this? But I’ve worked so hard, and it’s easy to forget that. It’s not something that I expected. I’m a real person, and I’m so happy with what I’ve accomplished and being a ballerina. It’s not like I’m hanging around with Rihanna.”
Copeland took her first ballet class when she was 13 on a basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, California (she showed up in in gym shorts and socks). In her memoir Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, she writes about a tough childhood: not knowing her real father, having a string of stepfathers, and living in a roadside motel room with her mom and five siblings. But for a while her ballet life was a fairy tale: She had an ideal, wafer-thin dancer’s body and was seen as a prodigy for how skilled she became in a fraction of the time most ballerinas usually develop their skills (some start as early as 3 years old). At 17, though, when she moved to New York to join ABT, two things happened: She went through puberty — her new breasts and other curves bewildered her — and she realized how uncommon it was to be a black ballerina. Out of 80 dancers, she was the only African- American. “I learned to blend,” she says, “and how to carry myself in an environment where a lot of times you’re being judged.”
Over time, she started to feel more at ease, pointing out that she was, in fact, different from the other dancers there, especially when it came to the stage makeup ballerinas must wear. “I’d be wearing the same color pancake makeup as the white girl next to me, and it became a struggle within myself,” she says. “I learned to speak up and say I don’t feel comfortable.”
In the more than a decade since then, she’s become an outspoken advocate for both diversity of body types (“Breasts look stunning with a tutu,” she says) and skin colors in the profession — all with the goal of letting aspiring dancers know there’s no one way they must look to, say, dance the part of Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” (as Copeland will this season). “Had I had this very easy path, I’d be a different person,” she says. “I talk about it because it hasn’t changed. Until I can see America represented in the American companies, we have to have the conversation. The people who say, ‘Oh, just let it go,’ they don’t understand what it means for someone who looks like me to look at me and be able to see their future.”
Copeland says that she’s noticed a shift in the makeup of the students at ABT’s school already. “It’s more diverse,” she says, “but those students are so young. The change on stage won’t happen for, like, nine years from now.” She may or may not still be dancing herself then; even if she stays in peak form, a ballerina’s career is about the same length as an NFL quarterback’s. “It’s hard to put a number on it,” she says. “Usually 40 is when as a principal dancer you start to slow down. I’m going to do it as long as I can.”
First, though, she has this performance season to look forward to, and after that, a 10-day getaway to the Greek island of Santorini with her boyfriend, an attorney whom she’s been dating for a decade. Back at Intermix, she’s thinking about this trip as she tries on a blue-and-white printed Cameo crop top that ties in front so it looks like her cleavage has been gift-wrapped. “I mean, it’s not practical in any way,” she says, “but it will look really nice against the blue water.”