By all accounts, Misty Copeland should not be a professional ballerina.
She didn’t take a single ballet lesson until 13, an age when most dancers have already been dancing for nearly a decade. Her single-parent household of six children was “barely scraping by,” in her words, where extracurricular activities were a luxury not even thought of. But even these formidable challenges were no match for the teenager who first stepped up to the barre in gym clothes. She was a prodigy.
“I know that ballet was the light that came into my life that I always say saved me,” said Copeland. “It made me who I am, as well as those struggles.”
Today, Copeland, 31, is not only professional dancer, but belongs to a company in the top echelon of the ballet world: the American Ballet Theatre. She moved to New York City and joined ABT at the age of 16 and is now a soloist, one of six women.
“I just really take care every time I walk onto the stage because I’m just really aware of everyone who’s watching me and the position that I hold and represent,” explained Copeland. “But for me, I want to enjoy myself. I’m not really ever thinking about the audience or who’s in the audience. No matter how old or new the role is, I want to be better each time.”
Copeland said she knows she will never perfect her technique. It’s that challenge – and the structure -- which she loves. She calls herself a “traditionalist.” A tradition which can consume the life of a dancer. She wakes at 8 a.m., then goes to a warm-up ballet class from 10:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Then a 15-minute break before 7 hours of rehearsal, with barely a break to eat. The hours are even more grueling during performance season, when dancers are in the theater from 10 a.m. to nearly 11 p.m. Copeland said it’s important for “people to see us beyond the stage.”
“We’re not these perfect little music box dolls that appear on the stage,” she said. “There’s so much athleticism. The injuries we’ve all had and experienced are injuries that football players and basketball players go through. I’d say that we train just as hard or harder than any athlete.”
Yet with its seemingly effortless grace, ballet calls for dancers not to flaunt that athleticism. Copeland’s petite body is particularly athletic, as well as curvier than the average ballerina – as recently seen in a “Vogue Italia” photo spread. That and her biracial background set her apart as one of the few faces of color in the world of ballet. She is the only African-American female soloist at the ABT.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how separated we are from the rest of the world in terms of arts and in terms of athleticism,” said Copeland. “It doesn’t matter that other art forms are more diverse or that we have a black president and we have a Tiger Woods and a Venus and Serena Williams. Ballet is so separate from all of that and slower to evolve.
“I think we’re at the point now where classical ballet has to evolve with the rest of world or it’s not going to last,” Copeland continued. “And so we have to diversify it, diversify the people on the stage as well as the people in the audience.”
To help remedy that situation, Copeland is involved in ABT’s new initiative “Project Plie.” Offering scholarships and teacher training, the program aims to increase ethnic and racial representation in both ABT’s and other companies’ corps. It also includes a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club.
It was at one of these clubs, in San Pedro, Calif., that a ballet teacher first noticed Copeland at 13. Within months she was en pointe -- “I just happened to have a body that moved in the way that a ballerina needed to move,” said Copeland. But far from being the fairy tale of a prodigy discovered, Copeland’s ballet teacher and her mother were soon engaged in a custody battle of sorts. Copeland lived with her dance teacher instead of slogging through a daily 2-hour bus ride to and from class. But relations between her mother and teacher soured especially when her teacher persuaded Copeland to file for emancipation. Eventually she dropped the request, moved back home and resumed ballet lessons at another studio. She completed high school and then turned professional.
In March, she will publish her memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.” She admits that “it’s been hard to go back and revisit some of the situations I was put in as a child.” But she credits the experience for making her a strong and resilient woman. Her advice to children who find themselves in the middle of a custody battle is to “know that it’s not your fault” and to forgive. She said she and her family are now in a good place and proud of each other for having the drive to succeed.
“Our daily life was surviving,” recalled Copeland. “So for me to become sort of the focal point of my family and this career that none of us knew anything about, it was really hard for [my mom] to accept that and to put that as a priority. None of her children were ever more of a priority than another. But then realizing how special a case I was, and how gifted I was, we all made sacrifices.”
In ABT’s recently opened fall season, Copeland is performing in “Theme and Variations,” among several other ballets. She said her dream roles include Kitri in “Don Quixote,” “Giselle” and Odette in “Swan Lake.” Two years ago, she danced the role of Gamzatti in “La Bayadere,” a role she would like to reprise as a “more experienced and mature dancer.”
If the competition involved in securing those roles brings up images from “Black Swan,” Copeland explained with a laugh that her real-life experience is far from the darkness portrayed in that movie.
“I think that each of the story lines that happened in ‘Black Swan’ came from some truth,” she said. “But no, that’s not our world, that’s not our everyday life. And most people don’t experience any of that as a classical dancer. I’ve been a part of ABT since I was 16. I consider this a family. I’ve grown up with so many of these people. So it’s not that kind of competition.”
And though dancing takes up most of her schedule, Copeland is involved in many side projects as well. She is designing a dancewear line for curvaceous dancers. And she has performed with Prince at Madison Square Garden and on “Lopez Tonight.”
“When I first was in touch with him, I thought very carefully about why,” she said. “I don’t want to ever do anything to sacrifice my art form. What will my art form benefit from working with him? What I wanted was for more people to see ballet.”
Just as she hopes to expose more and varied audiences to her art form, Copeland is also aiming to pioneer a role for herself – that of the first African-American female principal in any top company.
“I just refuse to give up,” she said. “I just want to keep growing. ABT is where I want to be as long as I’m doing classical ballet. This is my home. I’m going to keep fighting until the end. Until I can’t anymore.”
ABC News' Henry Gretzinger and Luis A. Yordán contributed to this episode.