Coming home…that’s what ballet has been for Misty Copeland, the first female African-American principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
The self-described curvy, brown girl might be considered an unlikely ballerina in a field dominated by rail-thin, ivory-skinned dancers. But, she was a natural from the time she started studying ballet at the San Pedro Boys & Girls Club as a 13-year-old in California. “It was as if I’d learned the movements in a past life and it all came back to me when I was in (mentor/teacher) Cindy’s (Bradley) class,” Misty writes in her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. “Still, I worked hard to make sure I did my best at ballet, the same as I pushed myself in school and at drill team. The natural ability I had for dance didn’t make me any less nervous about my place in the class. I didn’t feel like I totally fit in.”
Feelings of isolation and not belonging would follow Misty for years. Support from people like Cindy, who considered Misty to be a child prodigy, helped her believe in herself and her talent. They also covered expenses for classes, ballet shoes and other items that her family couldn’t afford. Misty’s late start – ballerinas often begin dancing almost as soon as they can walk – didn’t deter her and she used ballet to cope with her tumultuous childhood, including multiple moves and stepfathers.
At Home Onstage:
By the time she was 14, Misty was being noticed. She earned a standing ovation for her performance as Clare, the lead in Debbie Allen’s production of The Chocolate Nutcracker, a version of the classic Christmas story that incorporated African dance. “No matter how nervous I was about fitting in and meeting new people in the dance world, I felt at home onstage. Completely comfortable in my own skin.”
Misty became a member of the Corps de ballet with ABT, one of the world’s leading classical ballet companies, in 2001 at age 19. It was a dream come true for her, but she had to adjust to being “the new kid on the block.” She had less support than during her earlier work with the ABT summer intensive program and Studio Company. She was also the only black dancer in the entire main company of 80 dancers: “But while I’d noticed being the only one before, no one had ever made me feel bad about it. In fact, they’d always celebrated what made me different. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t always be true once I became a professional dancer.”
Body Image Pressure:
Soon after joining the Corps de ballet, Misty was delighted to be offered the lead in The Nutcracker, but couldn’t dance it because of a stress fracture in her lower back. The injury kept her in a back brace for six months and sidelined for another six months in physical therapy. After she recovered, her doctor put her on hormones to ensure she was growing properly and address delayed puberty, which is common in ballet dancers. This resulted in another challenge for Misty – a weight gain and curves that were not customary for ballerinas. “Because of my coppery skin, I’d never looked like most of the people I’d danced with. But now, with my new body, I looked even less like the dancers people expected to see onstage.”
Even with her new physique, Misty, at 5 feet, 2 inches tall and just over 100 pounds, was thin by normal standards. She felt pressure to dance perfectly as ABT staff leaned on her to “lengthen” and went through a period of binge eating. Her passion for dance and inner strength eventually led her to self-acceptance: “I changed my diet and exercise routine to keep myself healthy and fit. But I didn’t lose my curves and muscles. They were part of what makes me Misty Copeland, and I was still working just as hard as the Misty who didn’t weigh even 100 pounds when she joined ABT…The company staff noticed. They stopped calling me in to have meetings about my weight. They began to accept me for me.”
As Misty worked towards her goals of becoming a soloist and principal dancer with ABT, she looked to black ballerinas who had graced the stage before her. The young artist became friends with Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to join a major ballet company. Raven followed and supported Misty’s career. Misty was inspired by how Raven had survived incredible difficulties, including violent threats from the Ku Klux Klan while touring the Southern United States in the 1950s and having to paint her already light skin white. In Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, she pays tribute to black ballerinas Aesha Ash, Alicia Graf Mack, Lauren Anderson, Tai Jimenez and more who made their mark on ballet “but weren’t always given the respect they deserved.”
At high points in her career, such as when ABT selected Misty to star in The Firebird, making her the first black woman to dance the role for a prominent ballet company, she celebrated her heritage. “…I was happy that I’d been at the Dance Theater of Harlem when the news was announced. I was surrounded by black dancers who understood the importance of my casting. It was a historic moment for me, and all the hard work I’d put in at ABT over the past decade had been recognized in a big way. I had proved I was worthy of performing classical ballets. They knew how much that meant to me, and they were proud of what I’d accomplished. Just like I was proud whenever I saw black dancers breaking barriers.”
Misty, who was named as a principal dancer with ABT in 2015, has enjoyed many successes – performing on Prince’s Welcome 2 tour, serving on former US President Barack Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition and publishing Firebird, a children’s book, to name a few. Now 35, she has never forgotten where she came from and how her journey started:
“I believe it’s important to show young dancers that brown-skinned women with curves have the ability to break barriers. I want them to look at what I’ve accomplished and realize they can achieve this dream too. I often say that if there is space for a little brown girl from San Pedro in ballet, there is room for you.”
To learn more about Misty Copeland’s remarkable life, read Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.
Author Bio: RoseMary MacVicar-Elliott
RoseMary MacVicar-Elliott is a writer and editor in Toronto, Ont. Currently seeking new professional opportunities, her experience spans association and nonprofit communications, trade media, local journalism and freelancing.
- Biography.com & Wikipedia.com (Misty Copeland)
- Wikipedia.com (The Firebird)
- Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina Young Readers Edition