Misty Copeland Says Movies Like "Black Swan" Get Ballerinas All Wrong

Leigh Haber
·13 mins read
Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty

From Oprah Magazine

Before discovering ballet at age 13, Misty Copeland was a shy girl. After her mother’s various divorces and breakups with boyfriends, she spent most of her childhood moving from place to place with her mother and five siblings. She’d had no exposure to ballet—and certainly no dreams of becoming a prima ballerina, or the first Black woman to become principal dancer for New York’s elite American Ballet Theater.

Today, Misty Copeland is an icon and inspiration with a burning passion for bringing more people of color into the ballet world, both as dancers and as fans.

Copeland’s third book (her first is a bestselling memoir, 2014’s A Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, and the second, a children’s book called Firebird) is out now. It’s another illustrated children’s book, entitled Bunheads, which tells the story of a young dancer (named Misty!) who falls in love with dance through her role in the ballet Coppelia, an actual ballet Misty Copeland has danced.

Through that role, the Misty of Bunheads finds her confidence, her voice, and her life’s work. O’s Books Editor Leigh Haber spoke with Copeland to discuss her new book, life during coronavirus pandemic, and why she recently shared a stage with Taylor Swift.

Why are ballet dancers called “bunheads”?

Dancers put in many hours of training, and are alway running back and forth from home to school or the studio. When I think of them—of us—it's with little shorts on, with street clothes on over tights, their hair up in buns. You can spot them from a mile away. You know a ballet dancer when you see one. And they're referred to as bunheads. It's an actual term we use in our community, and I felt it was such a cute and endearing way to introduce this group of characters to readers. All my characters are based on real people, and my relationships with them coming of age in a ballet studio.

Can you describe that moment when you discovered ballet, and began to think, "This is what I'm in love with?"

While I wanted to capture the essence of my actual experience in Bunheads, it's not exactly how I was introduced to ballet. I was at the Boys & Girls Club at my community center when I was 13. Ballet wasn't something I knew about or had any interest in. I was drawn to dance, but the only dance I knew was on BET, MTV, and VH1. There was a free ballet class being offered, which was being taught on a basketball court. I was pushed into taking the class as they thought, having seen me dance on my own, that I had the ability.

At first, stepping onto a basketball court to learn ballet was mortifying. I was an introverted child and had experienced a lot of trauma. Ballet was way outside my comfort zone. But my teacher told me she’d never seen talent like mine. Also, she noted that I had a small head, sloping shoulders, long legs, and big feet of the typical ballerina. Soon she was calling me a prodigy and offering me a full scholarship to study at her school—a proper studio.

What happened when you started training at the studio?

The first time that I put on the tights and the leotard and the ballet slippers, and stepped into a studio with barres lining the walls and mirrors on the wall, was the first time that I realized my power and the voice that I had without speaking. At that time, speaking was something I avoided at all costs, but I found I could express myself through movement. I looked in the mirror and it was the first time I was being told that I was good at something and that I was beautiful. I wanted to capture that with my Bunheads protagonist, also named Misty. Though the fictional Misty’s introduction to ballet is a little different from mine, she immediately falls in love with ballet, too. A lot of that has to do with relationships she was creating within the studio—which is what happened to me.

There's a girl named Cat in your book—another dancer. Was there a Cat in your experience, a young colleague or mentor?

Yes. My best friend growing up, and probably the first friend I met at my studio, was named Catalina, a young Mexican-American girl. We called her Cat. She was such a big part of my growing up. I'm one of six children, and my siblings were my everything. But I didn't have close friends outside my brothers and sisters before ballet.

How were you and Cat different?

Cat was really outgoing. I think she was two or three years younger than me, but she was so mature and she just kind of took me under her wing. She'd been dancing her whole life. The first time I met Cat, I was really, really small for my age. She came up to me and talked to me like I was a little girl. She was like, "Oh, is this your first class? And how old are you?" And I looked at her? And I was like, "I'm 13." She was 10 or 11 at the time, and was like, "Oh, sorry." But it was that supportive relationship that I've realized is so much a part of the ballet world that people don't get to see depicted. There are often these tropes about ballet being cutthroat, and pitting girls against each other. That definitely wasn’t my experience, and Catalina was a big part of my building confidence and learning from her.

When people think of ballet they think it’s like the movie Black Swan—everyone’s out to get everyone else and knock them off the stage. How far is that from the reality?

I don’t think those stories are coming from professional dancers—they’re just made-up stories, and often not stories created by women. I think any young dancer would tell you that the friendships they develop while training or in a company are such a big part of why dancers dance. It's such a physical, intimate environment to be in.

Can you elaborate? I’ve always seen ballerinas as being sort of icy and regal, but you say that’s a false stereotype—that you’re huggers!

Yes, it’s about the aesthetic. But we’re also all practically naked around each other most of the time. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in. The studio has always been the most sacred and vulnerable place for me to be in. And so it's really important that you're surrounded by people you can trust and depend on—which organically happens because everyone's in the same boat. Being part of a professional company, you travel the world together. I typically spend more time with these dancers and I do my husband, my family. I've been at American Ballet Theater for almost 20 years now, and have lived and experienced so many ups and downs and journeys with these people. In the book I really wanted to highlight the beauty of ballet and the camaraderie, and the mentorship that's organically structured into it—whether it's your ballet coach or your teacher or your artistic director.

You often you say, "This is for the little brown girls." And in Bunheads, many of the dancers depicted are girls of color. As the first Black principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, can you say why that’s important?

It’s not that all little girls don't matter, or all little boys don't matter, but these are the people that have been excluded and underrepresented and told they're not beautiful and that they can’t dance ballet. So while the book is for everyone, I felt a responsibility to highlight those who have been excluded—to make them feel special, to empower them, so they can say, "Wow, this is for me, too."

You talk a lot about wanting to expand the small, pretty insular community of ballet. And perhaps to that end, you danced at a Taylor Swift concert, which was so beautiful, by the way.

Thank you. Thought goes into all of my collaborations, whether it's endorsement deals or coming together with other artists. But always the larger goal is to reach a broader fan base or a fan base that ballet doesn't necessarily organically reach.

Prince was the first artist who introduced you to an audience outside ballet…

Yes, he introduced me to the world. And to have someone of his stature have respect and understanding for what I did, I think that's first and foremost. I wasn't a backup dancer. I was an artist performing with him, and it really changed my whole perception of even how I saw myself outside of the ballet realm, where we're often not treated on that same level as other artists. That changed my whole trajectory of how I think about what I do and about knowing my worth. And so, working with someone like Taylor, who is so important, I think, for this generation of girls, in understanding their power and and of course, her incredibly huge fan base, it just made perfect sense. And having her respect for ballet—that ballet dancers are equally important in our culture and community, that was number one.

Photo credit: Kevin Mazur - Getty Images
Photo credit: Kevin Mazur - Getty Images

Tell us about Swans for Relief, and how dancers are dealing with COVID19 and not being able to perform in the usual venues before live audiences.

In general, artists are good at taking advantage of whatever it is we have in our reach and creating art in any situation. And so many dancers are struggling financially right now, so Swans for Relief is helping to raise money to support them. We have 32 dancers from all over the world performing separately on video from their home countries, and is available to watch on various social platforms. And there’s a GoFundMe page. I have faith that we're going to survive this and come out with a better understanding of how to move forward and be more inclusive. But like I was saying before, when it comes to the relationships, one of the hardest things for dancers in this moment is not being surrounded by people. And I don't mean the audience—I mean in the studio.

Besides the financial aspect, is the hardest part not being able to perform before an audience?

It’s more that ballet is such a physical art form. It’s in our DNA, to want to connect with the other dancers—we want to be close and physically connect with each other. The partners that we that we dance with in the corps de ballet, the group of girls you're breathing the same air with, trying to breathe at the same time and dance in unison. It’s that physical and emotional connection we’re missing now. Dancing solo just isn’t the same. And then, of course, feeling that energy from a live audience can never be replaced. But I do think that this is a moment in time for us to be able to reach more people virtually, and we're connecting to so many more people than would typically come to the theater. I even think that there's a chance for us to change what theater is, coming out of this.

In what way?

When I think about the Metropolitan Opera House and I think about La Scala in Milan, and all of these big theaters, there's so much history connected to excluding people in those spaces. I'm not putting them down, they're clearly such a big part of culture. But I think that this is an opportunity for us to change that idea, whether it's creating outdoor spaces in communities that aren't included or, just to make these underserved communities feel like they are being invested in and they are a part of this.

How did seeing the protests unfold this summer make you think about your role as an artist?

I don't feel that it has shifted my mind that much because this has been my mission and a part of my existence for 20 years of professional life. Backlash has been part of that, especially when I’m vocal about the racism lack of diversity in ballet. But now people are feeling freer to speak up without being afraid of being reprimanded or other consequences. People’s eyes are more wide open.

Mentorship is important to you. In fact, you’re now doing an online Master Class. Has Twyla Tharp been a mentor?

She's been a huge inspiration. I've been working with her for 20 years. I think I was 16 years old the first time she set a ballet on me when I was just a summer program student at ABT [ed note: American Ballet Theater] in New York. To this day, I still go to her house often and we’re working together on several projects. It's always been important for me to see the artists who have come before me, and know their struggles, know what's happening inside of them and what I can learn from their experiences. Twyla's autobiography, Push Comes to Shove is amazing, as is her recent book, Keep It Moving—on dealing with an aging mind and body.

What else do you like to read?

I'm pretty all over the place. It came out a couple of years ago, but I’m really loving Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. To read about the biracial experience of a person from another culture is fascinating. And I always keep going back to The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, which keeps me grounded, and has been so relevant at many stages of my life. It's always like reading it for the first time.

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