Misty Copeland Shares the Impact of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America on Her Ballet Career

Image: Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.

Misty Copeland made history as the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. In addition to being a world renowned ballerina, Copeland is also an author, speaker and ambassador for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. EBONY sat down with the premiere ballerina to learn more about the impact the national youth organization made on her life, how she continues to pay it forward, and why diversity in the arts matter. 

EBONY: You’re celebrating 10 years of service as a Boys & Girls Clubs of America ambassador. Can you share how you initially became involved with the Boys & Girls Club?

Copeland: I grew up in a single-parent home as one of six children. My mother was working several jobs and I was seven years old when she brought me to our local Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, California. It was at the age of thirteen that I was introduced to ballet on a basketball court in the gym at my club. That was the first time in my life that I experienced having a support system, guidance, mentors, and some type of structure in my life. When I joined my club, it was probably the lowest point in my young life because we were living in a motel and struggling just to get by. That’s why it’s so important for me to stay connected to the club and to give back to the next generation.

I continue to do this because I know that it’s setting an example of giving back to the next generation and seeing that Boys & Girls Clubs are creating great futures. I wouldn’t be a ballerina with American Ballet Theater without my local Boys & Girls Club.

EBONY: Do you remember your experience at your first ballet class at the Boys & Girls Club? 

Yes, I remember it so vividly. I was extremely introverted as the fourth of six children. I didn’t play any sports and had never been a part of anything structured. There happened to be a local ballet teacher, Cindy Bradley, that came to the Boys & Girls Club to be part of the community and to find a more diverse group of kids to bring to her ballet studio on a full scholarship. Ballet is a European art form; it is very white, and you don’t see a lot of people of color. But when she plucked me out of this group of kids, initially it was not something I wanted to do. It was totally intimidating, so foreign, and I had never heard classical music before. It took weeks, but slowly she got me into the gym and once I took that first class she told me I was a prodigy and she wanted to bring me into her school on a full scholarship. 

From day one the goal was to become a professional and dance for American Ballet Theater. It all happened rapidly; I only trained for 4 years in San Pedro before I moved to New York City and became a professional.

As someone who had a later start as a dancer, beginning your ballet training at 13 years old, when did you know you would make ballet your career?

It was immediate. I know it’s really hard for people to understand that a thirteen-year-old was making that decision, but I had no other options with all of the hardships I had growing up. I was homeless for a lot of my childhood and it was ballet that was giving me an opportunity. 

I also had never been in an atmosphere where I felt powerful and I felt like my opinion mattered. When I was on the stage, I felt like I had a sense of safety and security. I know it sounds so opposite because you’re so vulnerable when you’re out there, but I felt so at home. And, I had finally found a place for me to express myself in a way that worked for me. I knew ballet was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. 

You mentioned that you were shy and introverted as a child, can you share how starting ballet at your local Boys & Girls Club impacted your confidence?

I think that that confidence-building was initiated at my club. Ballet just took that to the next level. That’s why it’s so important to have arts programs in school and after-school programsl. I think it starts to develop a different part of your brain. It took me years to build confidence but ballet gave me a voice in a sense of belonging in a way I hadn’t experienced outside of my local club.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America has a mission to enable all young people to reach their full potential. Who are some of your mentors?

Yeah, there have been so many along the way. One of my first mentors was Mike Lansing at my local Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, California. 

Once I started ballet, it completely opened up an incredible world of women of color. Raven Wilkinson was one of those women I look up to, as a Black ballerina dancing in an all white company in the 1950s and seeing everything that she overcame. I feel like it’s my responsibility to share the stories of the people whose shoulders that I stand on. 

Another mentor was Prince, he was an incredible guide for me. He set an example as an artist of color that was breaking boundaries and doing things in a way that worked for him and showing you can have ownership in power over your art.

You’re an author of several books and now you’re working on a new book, Black Ballerinas, can you share more about what we can expect?

This is something that I wanted to do for over a decade. As a Black ballerina, there is not really documentation or a history book that exists for us. We open up a ballet book and we don’t see the contributions that Black women throughout history have made in ballet. Now, I’m telling their stories and sharing how they influenced and inspired me. It’s important that this generation knows about dancers that have helped to shape, advance, and impact the art form. 

You’ve written children’s books including Firebird and Bunheads. Can you share some of the takeaways?   

Going back to the Boys & Girls Clubs, it’s about mentorship and guidance, both of which have been such big themes in my children’s books. 

Firebird was really based on my relationship with Raven Wilkenson. I wanted to show kids that it is OK not to do it all on your own, accepting help and support is OK. That’s been an important thing for me to share, especially with writing for children.

And with my book Bunheads, it’s been an opportunity to set a positive example for the ballet community. I think so often there’s such a negative depiction when it comes to how the ballet world is perceived, as extremely competitive and cutthroat. The book celebrates the beautiful relationships that can come about within a ballet studio or a community center and how important that is.

You have been outspoken on the importance of diversity and inclusion in ballet. Can you share your insights on progress?

It’s been a long journey. Not just for me, but for so many generations of dancers that have come before me. This past year and a half with the pandemic and the death of George Floyd, I’ve seen the most progress I’ve ever experienced when it comes to addressing these issues of lack of diversity and racism within classical ballet in my twenty year professional career. I have so much hope for the future of ballet. All I can do is continue to represent, be a positive example and express my experiences.

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