Misty Copeland, Ballet Dancer
Misty Copeland’s fast rise from scrappy California teen to principal dancer at American Ballet Theater could almost be called a fairytale. But as she tells it, it’s a story of facing down every challenge with just the right mix of grace and gumption.
Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theater | MAKERS
Misty Copeland discusses her journey to New York's American Ballet Theatre and the importance of providing young girls with positive and diverse role models.
Balancing Ballet and Family: Misty was offered a contract to dance with ABT when she was just 16, but her mother insisted she delay her professional career to earn her high school diploma. “It was hard to hear at the time that I had to turn down the contract, but the following year I was offered a contract again and an apprenticeship with the company.”
Ballet Body Shaming: For centuries, ballet has demanded female dancers maintain nymph-like body types, a standard that has eliminated many talented performers. Copeland has broken that barrier, proving an athletic body-type can be graceful. “I’m a woman now and I don’t look like a little girl. And I don’t think we should look like little girls.”
Inspiring Next Generations: She knows her journey means as much to others as it does to her. “Being one of the few black women in the ballet world is something that I do think about maybe not every day, but when I speak to a young girl who has tears in her eyes and says ‘thank you for doing what you’re doing,’ that’s when I’m most proud.”
MISTY COPELAND: We all look different. And I think that's something that is important with kind of the growth of where ballet is going. I'm a woman now, and I don't look like a little girl, and I don't think that we should look like little girls.
Ballet was never on my radar. I never thought I would be a dancer. I enjoyed moving, but that's not something I ever thought of as a career. Ballet found me when I was about 13 years old, and I was approached by a teacher who told me that I had something. I looked like a performer. I looked like a dancer. I'd never seen a ballet in my life, so it was all very foreign to me and something I couldn't even fathom doing. So I took my first ballet class at a Boys and Girls Club on a basketball court, and everything just happened so rapidly after that.
My teacher said to me that you have the potential to be in a professional company, but if this is what you want to do, your life has to be ballet for the next four years because most ballet dancers go out and audition for companies by the time they're 16 or 17. At the time, I don't think I was aware of exactly what I was getting myself into, but I felt so happy and at ease when I was doing it. So it was like an immediate yes.
And four years later, I was in New York dancing for American Ballet Theater. And I knew that ABT was the company I was going to dance with from the beginning when I first started dancing. I just had a connection with them, and their history, and the fact that they're so versatile in terms of the types of dancers they have and body types. By the time I was 16, I was offered a contract already with the studio company, which is ABT's junior company, but my mom just thought I was too young. I'd only been training for three years at that point.
My mother pretty much raised all of us kids by herself, and she really wanted me to get my high school diploma. It was hard to hear at the time that I had to turn down the contract, but the following year, I was offered a contract again, and I was also offered an apprenticeship with the company. I was the only black woman in the company for 11 years, and I am preparing for my first principal role with the creation of the ballet "The Firebird."
Being the first black woman to be put in this role in a major company, it's the start of it all, and it's definitely one of the big highlights. Prince reached out to me and he asked me to be in a music video with him. He definitely helped me, I think, to look at what I do in a different way. Being able to perform with him live on stage at Madison Square Garden, I think, is a huge accomplishment being a classical ballet dancer. That's not really our set.
Being one of the few black women in ballet world, just something that I do think about maybe not every day. But when I speak to a young girl who has tears in her eyes and says, you know, thank you for doing what you're doing, that's when I'm most proud.
MISTY COPELAND: Don't be afraid to be strong and to speak up for yourself and what you believe in. You can still be an elegant woman and be strong and powerful at the same time.
MISTY COPELAND: I think that people think that sometimes I focus too much on the fact that I'm a black dancer. But that's so much of who I am, and I think it's so much a part of my story. Just making it to the level I think, no matter what race you are or what gender, it's a huge accomplishment. But I don't think people realize what a feat it is, being a black woman.
If they were to, you know, go back and read that there's never been a black woman at the Royal Ballet, at the Paris Opera Ballet, at the Kirov Ballet, and the top companies in the world at New York City Ballet in New York City-- I don't think people really understand that.