Misty Copeland: Ballet Prodigy Turned Activist

Misty Copeland: Ballet Prodigy Turned Activist

By Emily Cadei

SourceBrad Barket/BET/Getty Images for BET


Because finding upward mobility via the joy of dance is absolutely joyful.

By Emily Cadei

Misty Copeland made headlines last year as the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. Here’s our story from a year before that historic moment, in March of 2014.

Misty Copeland’s legs are a hot topic on the Web these days.

Arsenio Hall pointed this out when he hosted the groundbreaking ballerina on his show last week. And a quick Google search confirms that there is, indeed, quite a lot of online chatter about Copeland’s shapely gams, particularly since fitness wear company Under Armour announced an ad campaign featuring the American Ballet Theatre dancer — the ABT’s first African-American soloist in two decades.

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes watching Copeland dance to understand what all the fuss is about. Those are some powerful limbs she’s sporting — the kind of thighs you could find on a track star, except that they go on forever. And as she pirouettes and pliés and jetés around the stage, they appear simultaneously light and lithe and yet strong as pistons, a mesmerizing display of physical movement.

“As an artist,” Copeland explained to Hall, “these are my instruments,” kicking that famous pair of legs in the air for emphasis, with just a hint of sass. 

Misty in dance pose on gray backdrop

The first time Misty practiced on pointe.

With that in mind, Copeland’s story sounds like something from a Hollywood script: The fourth of six children of a single mother, she was living in a motel room with her family when she stumbled upon a ballet class at the Boys and Girls Club a short walk from her middle school. At 13 years old, she was practically washed up in the ballet world, where children often start dancing at just 3 years old and are engaging in serious training from the age of 7. But it took only a couple of weeks for her teacher, Cynthia Bradley, to spot Copeland’s out-this-world potential, and she quickly admitted the gangly biracial teenager into her private Southern California ballet studio on a full scholarship. They are also one among many things that make the striking and steely 31-year-old from San Pedro, Calif., a working-class community near Long Beach, stand out in the waspy world of classical dance. Traditionally, ballerinas are rail-thin, not ripped like a world-class sprinter. They come from affluent backgrounds. Oh, and they’re almost exclusively white.

Within three months, she was dancing on pointe — a milestone that usually takes girls 10 years of training to reach. Only four years later, she joined the company at ABT and started dancing professionally. In other words, she had prodigious talent.

Copeland isn’t one for false modesty, but she’s also very candid about her struggles and self-doubt. There was plenty of both during her turbulent childhood and since joining the rarified and often foreign-feeling world of professional ballet.

As a child, “ballet was not on my radar, I’d never thought that was something I wanted to do,” Copeland told OZY’s Carlos Watson at a Q&A session hosted by NPR in Washington, D.C., recently, where she was discussing her new memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. “I never really wanted to stand out for any reason. I was just kind of trying to survive daily.”

Little did she know, the same qualities that made her feel like the ultimate ugly duckling — the large, pliable feet; long legs and hyperextended knees; and heaps of physical strength — would make her a natural in the ballet studio. 

“I felt so insecure about the way I looked,” Copeland recalled. “I had big feet and long legs and this little peanut head. And then I stepped into the ballet studio, and that was like perfection and beauty.” 

“It was interesting to feel for once like I was beautiful and I stood for something, and I had a voice and it came through dance,” she continued, adding that before she’d begun dancing, she was remarkably underdeveloped in terms of her ability to express herself.

“I really hung on to that and connected with it,” Copeland said, “especially because my outside life was so chaotic.”

Having made the leap from upstart dancer to professional with remarkable speed, Copeland is now trying to help other dancers of color and of limited means realize the same sort of possibilities.

Copeland said it remains “really, really difficult” to be an African-American woman of color in American ballet, even in 2014. “It’s hard to be alone, it’s hard to know there’s never been a real path that I can follow and feeling like at times there’s no path for me, I’m going to give up,” she told Watson. “Just owning that I can lead others was a huge step for me in my career.”

To that end, she’s teamed with ABT and the Boys and Girls Club of America to start Project Plié, which is working to conduct outreach in underrepresented communities and, ultimately, to diversify American ballet. 

And if the number of young African-American girls who attended the NPR event with their parents is any indication, Copeland’s presence among the upper ranks of the ABT, alone, is creating ripples across minority communities. Copeland herself is still striving to break more barriers — she’s shooting to go from soloist to principal dancer at the ABT. But that’s just one element of her ambition.

One woman drove several hours from suburban Leesburg, Virginia, just for a chance to thank Copeland for replying to the fan mail of her fifth-grade daughter, who is not only a budding ballerina, but also a budding writer. “[My daughter] came home one day with tears in her eyes and she said, ‘Mom, Misty wrote me, and not only did she write me, Mother — she wrote me a handwritten letter,’” the mother told Copeland from the audience. “And it just filled my heart … that you would take the time out to write her a handwritten letter.”

“In order to spark change in this very niche art form, we have to start conversations on a much bigger platform than just the ballet world,” Copeland said in Washington. “And that’s what I’m trying to do.”