Twenty-nine-year-old Misty Copeland has been described as an “unlikely ballerina” — and not just because she was a teenager when she took her first lessons. In an industry dominated by young Caucasian women who have been training since Kindergarten, Misty, a prodigy, became an award-winning ballerina after only two years of training and is the first African American soloist for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre in twenty years.
Such remarkable feats at such a young age has garnered her many impressive awards and honors, including endorsement deals with BlackberryTM and The Boys and Girls Club of America, and a spot on the PBS/AOL series “MAKERS: Women Who Make America,” a digital initiative that aims to be the largest and most dynamic collection of trailblazing women’s stories ever assembled.”
But Misty never sought out stardom or even ballet — ballet found her, as she says, and changed her life. And in return, she’s changing the face of the industry. Misty shared with EBONY what it’s like to be considered a “game-changer.”
MISTY COPELAND: It’s shocking! It’s very rare that someone in my field gets this kind of [mainstream] recognition. It’s never really our focus [to become famous]; we work so hard in the studio and we give everything we’ve got on stage and normally we get to leave it at that.
But I know that my story is different from the typical ballet dancer’s story and I want many young African American girls to know that it’s ok to venture into this art form. I know the struggles [in this industry] and how important it is for young women to have someone out there that they can relate to, so I’m happy to be one of the voices of ballet right now.
EBONY: Being the first Black soloist in so long is such an awesome honor. But why do you think it has been 20 years since there was a black soloist in the American Ballet Theatre?
MC: Unfortunately, I think that many Black dancers are intimidated because they see that there haven’t been many who have made it successfully and they’re being told [by instructors] that it’s going to be such a struggle [to be a Black ballerina] and it’ll be easier for you to be a modern or contemporary or hip hop dancer. I mentor 7 and 8 year-old dancers and they’ve been told straight out that they can’t be a successful ballet dancer because they’re Black. I get so emotional when I see these struggles they are having. That’s why it’s so important for me to be a positive role model for them and to be a voice telling them, “Don’t give up!”
EBONY: What separates you from those other young African-Americans who have been discouraged from ballet? How did you persevere through that?
MC: Fortunately for me, I was blind to the negativity because I stepped into ballet at such a late age. I was surrounded by positive people who saw my talent and believed in me and I didn’t hear all of these voices telling me “no.” I was sheltered from that and really naïve to it.
Looking back, I know that I nearly lost one of the first hired gigs I’d gotten because the producers had heard of me and wanted me for the lead but did not know that I was Black. So when I came out to dance for them they were surprised that I was a Black dancer and it was an issue. But they eventually let me dance and they loved me and I ended up being the lead, but I almost didn’t get to have that opportunity. I didn’t really understand why at the time.
EBONY: And that is just another example of your undeniable talent. You’ve been described as a “prodigy.” What does that label mean to you, if anything, and how does that impact your life?
MC: I only trained for four years before I went professional and I know that’s unheard of now, but I don’t think [being labeled a prodigy] impacts my life any more. I know that label was the reason I got the media attention when I was first starting out, but I don’t think I really understood how rare my gift was. [As a teenager] I thought ballet was fun and I enjoyed it and I was craving an art or discipline and ballet was it for me. I don’t think of myself as a prodigy and it really doesn’t come up a lot in my everyday life. Many dancers don’t know my story and don’t know that I started at 13, so I feel like I’m on equal ground with them.
One of the great things about being naïve to fame and negativity was that I got to build my character and myself as an artist without judgment. I’m extremely grateful for that.
EBONY: Another gift of naïveté you mentioned was that you didn’t experience nervousness when you danced because you were unaware of the magnitude of what you were doing. Now that you’re older and aware and the first Black soloist in 20 years, do you get nervous and feel pressure to be the best?
MC: I don’t know if I would call it nerves, but I’m aware and it makes you respond very differently on stage. I don’t want to call it pressure, but I feel like I have a lot to prove and that brings something out of me in front of a live audience that doesn’t even happen during rehearsal.
Every performance I give I want to be an example to the classical ballet word that it is possible for a black woman to be in this position and be the best. I want them to see that there are no colors when it comes to this field. I’m 5’2, so there’s not necessarily a certain height or size or specific ideas about who a ballerina is or what a person of color can do.
EBONY: You’ve mentioned that you were drawn to the American Ballet Theatre because this company is not as focused on body image or having everyone look and be the same. But have you ever experienced the very real body image issues that so many dancers face?
MC: Well, ABT still has restrictions and a way you should look, but there have been many more diverse dancers from different walks of life in this company. But across the industry, there are still very stringent weight restrictions and I don’t know if that is something that will ever change. Our bodies are instruments and these companies expect them to be fine-tuned.
Body image issues, racial barriers, there are so many things that come along with this field. On a daily basis, we put our bodies through so much in training and performing. That’s why I am so grateful to have been surrounded by amazing mentors. When I could’ve given up they kept me going. And in an art like this, amazing mentors are a requirement.
EBONY: Recently, movies like Black Swan have brought a lot of attention to the world of ballet and the pressures dancers face. Do you feel that movie was somewhat of an accurate portrayal of those pressures?
MC: Not at all. Many in the ballet world were actually extremely offended by Black Swan because it projects such a negative image of ballet dancers. When you’re in a prestigious company like ABT, there is obviously competition, but we have been together for years and we’ve become family. We’re not a bunch of people out to get each other. That movie was made to make money, I understand that, but [that level of competition is] by no means anywhere near what we actually experience with each other.
EBONY: You’ve done so many awesome things in your young life. What do you hope your legacy will be?
MC: I think Maya Angelou said it best, “People may not always remember exactly what you did or said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” I hope that people who have seen me perform or seen an interview with me were moved and will remember a positive feeling. I hope to set an extremely positive example for the young dancers I mentor and for the ballet world and I’d like to just continue to represent Black dancers well. I still have a lot more dancing left to do!
You can catch Misty performing in Le Bayadère, Firebird, and Le Corsaire starting in May at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.