Major news in the ballet world today as 32-year-old superstar dancer Misty Copeland was named the first black principal ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre. She is the first female to earn the title in the prestigious dance company's 75-year history. It is position Copeland has openly aspired to since she joined the company in 2001. Surprisingly, Copeland has become one of only a handful of African-American principal dancers in the United States. The need for diversity in the ballet world is a subject Copeland has been vocal about, and with an increasingly broad platform that message is being heard. Copeland's memoir Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina was published in 2014, she has been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People, and her inspiring Under Armour ad about ignoring critics has gotten 8 million views. If ever a ballerina were poised to become a household name, it’s she, now.
Awed is really the only word with which to describe the experience of watching Misty Copeland dance. The ballerina exhibits such a moving combination of strength and grace that she’s one of the most captivating and exciting dancers onstage today. She embodies both fearlessness and femininity, reflecting the life of contradictions and obstacles over which she’s leapt so beautifully.
Copeland was one of six children raised in San Pedro, Calif., by a single mother. “My mom was struggling at the time, and her priority was to keep us fed and alive; it wasn’t getting me to ballet class,” Copeland says of the time her family lived in a motel room. But she did manage to take a ballet class at her local Boys & Girls club at age 13; she was dancing en pointe within three months, which made her a veritable prodigy.
“It was thrust on me immediately,” she says. “I was asked to decide within my first month of training whether or not I wanted to be a professional.” She wanted it, so the following years brought intensive training and attention within the dance community. Copeland won the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight award and attended the San Francisco Ballet’s summer intensive program, after which the school offered her a position as a full-time student. But Copeland was determined to join New York’s prestigious America Ballet Theatre, which she did in 2000.
“I accepted a lot of mentors into my life that guided me and gave me confidence,” Copeland says of her early years in New York. “You have to be open to help; you can’t be stubborn and think you can make it on your own. Everyone needs guidance.” Copeland credits her godparents, ballet teacher Cynthia Bradley, actress Victoria Rowell, and the singer Prince with helping guide her. “Prince came into my life when I was 26, and I worked with him for three years,” she explains. She performed in his Crimson & Clover video and frequently accompanied him on tour. “He taught me to not limit myself, and to be OK with putting yourself out there in order to grow and overcome.”
And Copeland’s had plenty to tackle. “I have yet to overcome all of the challenges as an African-American woman in the ballet,” she says. She’s just the third African-American soloist at the ABT and now the first black principal ballerina in the storied company’s history. “Accepting that I’m not going to fit into this world that I’m a part of has been a learning process. Accepting who I am as a person, the color of my skin, and the shape of my body,” she says. “But what I’ve learned is that if you have talent, drive, and support, you can be whoever you want to be — even if you don’t fit the mold.”
The road to acceptance was long, especially as Copeland’s body transformed from petite and delicate to strong and womanly: “It was devastating to me. I always had this perfect ballerina body, and I was losing my grasp on my tool.” She learned to eat in a way that fueled her and to accept that strength could be her greatest asset as a dancer, all of which comes in handy in her new role, on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, focusing more on health than diet. “I don’t deprive myself of any foods. I love dessert!”
Like many women, Copeland sees a correlation between what she eats and her skin. “Eating clean, pure foods without a lot of additives makes a difference. I was raised eating a lot of salty, fatty foods, and that really doesn’t react well with my body and my skin.” When Copeland is in rehearsal, she sometimes adds gyrotonics, elliptical training, or swimming to her fitness routine, but the focus is always on ballet. “Ballerinas are very blessed — it targets every single part of your body,” she says.
When asked what makes her happiest, Copeland doesn’t hesitate: “Dance!”
Photos: Henry Leutwyler