In mid-2015, Misty Copeland was promoted to principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre.
It was an accomplishment long expected. In the years prior, Copeland had quickly become one of the country’s most famous ballerinas, after appearances on 60 Minutes and the cover of Time.
But it meant more than a title in line with her fame, and not just because it marked the first time an African American woman to become a principal for ABT. It was also a recognition of just how far Copeland has come, through highs and lows, to become one of the best at her craft.
Copeland spent her early years moving around California to live with her mother’s new husbands and boyfriends. Her biological father had left the family when she was two, and it would be another 20 years before she saw him again. They spent many years in poverty, and the relationships between the carousel of men and Copeland’s family were tumultuous, and often abusive. One stepfather in particular was fond of employing racial slurs.
Still, Copeland’s youth had moments of happiness. At the age of seven she saw a biopic of Romanian gymnist Nadia Comăneci, and found a hero in her. The film also helped Copeland discover the joy of motion, though at the time she expressed this joy through choreographing her own dances to Mariah Carey songs.
In middle school, Copeland became captain of the drill team. Her coach, Elizabeth Cantine, instantly noticed her grace and agility, and recommended that Copeland take a free ballet lesson at the Boys & Girls club that she attended after school.
She went, but sat in the bleachers shyly; enchanted by what was on offer, but too nervous to involve herself. Eventually her teacher, Cindy Bradley, managed to coax her down and realised immediately that Copeland was gifted. A prodigy. “I think at the time, I was seeing her potential of what she could do as a dancer. I also knew that she could possibly be in a position of being a role model. But all of this took the incredible hard work — continuous hard work — by Misty. I knew she was going to do great dancing, but this is just almost too impossible to even dream of” Bradley told The Huffington Post in an interview just days after Copeland was appointed a principal dancer.
Copeland was able to hold her body in wonderfully complex positions; the kind most ballerinas are taught from the age of 5 or 6. She was 13.
Soon, Bradley was picking up Copeland from school to take her for training at the San Pedro Dance Centre. She excelled, but her home life took a turn for the worse. Her mother had left her latest husband, and the family moved into a hotel. It seemed Copeland would have to give up dancing, until an arrangement was made to allow her to live with Bradley.
Within the year, Copeland had won her first ballet competition, and secured the role of Clara in The Nutcracker after only eight months of study. This was followed by a larger role in Don Quixote, and a feature role in The Chocolate Nutcracker that was specifically tailored for her. The performance was produced by actress and choreographer Debbie Allen, who told the LA Times in 1999 “(Copeland’s) an incredibly gifted ballerina. . .She’s a child who dances in her soul. I can’t imagine her doing anything else”.
The following year, Bradley began to homeschool Copeland in order to ensure she had optimal time available for dance practice. This eventually lead to a six week workshop at the San Francisco Ballet School. Copeland was made an offer by all of the programs she auditioned for bar one. After the workshop completed, she was offered the option to continue as a full-time student at the school. She declined in order to return home at the insistence of her mother.
Moving back in with her mother lead to arguments, and the fear that Copeland would no longer be able to work with Bradley. She ran away from home, and filed for emancipation. The custody battle that followed was tumultuous, making headlines in national newspapers and magazines due to the media attention Copeland had been receiving since her first public role. Eventually, Copeland returned to her mother under the proviso that she be allowed to continue dancing.
She commenced study at Lauridsen Ballet Centre, though returning to high school meant she could only train in the afternoons.
For the next year Copeland worked closely with the American Ballet Theatre, but chose to pursue her education even after extensive offers to cover her expenses if she joined the company immediately.
In 2000, Copeland became part of the ABT Studio Company. Soon after, she was sidelined with a lumbar stress fracture. Doctors prescribed birth control pills in an attempt to strengthen Copeland’s bones (she had yet to commence puberty, a common occurrence for ballet dancers), and her body immediately began to change. “Leotards had to be altered for me … to cover my cleavage, for instance. I hated this sign that I was different from the others. … I became so self-conscious that, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t dance strong. I was too busy trying to hide my breasts.”
Pressure mounted for Copeland to conform to stereotypical ballet standards, resulting in a binge eating disorder. It was only through the support of friends outside the industry that she managed to regain her confidence. “My curves became an integral part of who I am as a dancer, not something I needed to lose to become one. I started dancing with confidence and joy, and soon the staff at ABT began giving me positive feedback again. And I think I changed everyone’s mind about what a perfect dancer is supposed to look like.”
Even then, Copeland saw her ethnicity as an issue, as she was the only black woman in the company. ABT heads began to mentor her, introducing Copeland to African American trailblazers who allowed her to gain perspective of her difference not as alienating, but as defining. She wore it as a badge of pride, hoping that this distinction would allow her to become an important role model for aspiring dancers.
When she returned to the stage she came back stronger than ever. After five years as an outstanding member of the Corps de ballet, Copeland was appointed a soloist in 2007. She was one of the younger ever to do so.
As she gained unprecedented prominence and acclaim for her solo work, Copeland broadened her body of work. In 2009 she performed in a music video for Prince, a collaboration that would continue on-and-off for several years. She wrote her memoir, Life in Motion, and it was optioned for adaptation by New Line Cinema. She has also appeared on television shows, including A Day in the Life and So You Think You Can Dance.
In April of 2015, Time listed Copeland as one of the 100 most influential people. The article confirming her entry was written by none other than Nadia Comăneci.
Then, of course, in July of 2015, Copeland was promoted to principal dancer, the first black woman to hold the title in the ABT’s 75-year history and, as some claim, in the history of American dance theatres.
It is just one of her many accomplishments, and at the age of 33, it’s not hard to imagine there are many more to come.
Throughout her trials and hard work, Copeland has established herself as the pioneer and role model she hoped to be. People young and old crowd the stage doors following each of her performances, hoping to get a glimpse of the star. To them, she has one thing to say:
“You can do anything you want, even if you are being told negative things. Stay strong and find motivation”.