Misty Copeland: American Dancer

How Prince, perseverance and plenty of pliés helped Misty Copeland make history, and change the staid world of ballet

Misty Copeland in New York City. Credit: Chester Higgins Jr./NYTimes/Redux

By now, the libretto of ballet dancer Misty Copeland has become something resembling a parable of feminist empowerment and an urban fairy tale. In June, Copeland was promoted to the role of principal dancer at New York's American Ballet Theatre, becoming the first African-American woman to attain that title in the 75-year history of the prestigious dance company.

As a result, her career – and her position as an agent for change in an exclusive art form – has reached unprecedented heights. With a best-selling memoir, a Time magazine cover, a new documentary, an upcoming Broadway debut and a feature-length biopic in the works, all in addition to her new leading role at ABT, Copeland is now more than a mere ballet prodigy. She has become a cultural superstar as well.

But how did the once taciturn and diminutive daughter of a single mother, who grew up in a household with five other brothers and sisters, come to discover such an empowered personality and professional mission in ballet? As it happened, Copeland's success originated in the delicate folds of a young girl's imagination.

"Ballet became this escape for me," she says. "I feel like I was on my own a lot. I was searching for stability, so I was going off on my own and imagining what I thought stability was. Ballet became a way for me to cope."

The plight of Copeland's occasionally harrowing childhood, spent residing with various stepfathers, in motels and, for a time, with the family of her adoptive ballet instructors is a topic the now 32-year-old dancer refuses to shy from, sharing many of her family's tribulations in her 2014 memoir, Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. The more difficult circumstances detailed in the book include fleeing an emotionally abusive stepfather, living in a gang-infested quarter of Downtown Los Angeles and, perhaps worst of all, engaging in a much-publicized emancipation battle fought between ballet instructors, Patrick and Cindy Bradley, and mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, the coverage of which stalked Copeland for years. 

"That was my time to create in my own little inner world," Copeland explains of the fantasies she cultivated in reaction to her tempestuous, domestic life. "The atmosphere I was surrounded by never helped me in any way to voice what it was I was creating. So it became this very cerebral thing for me."

She points to the mundane image of a motel's balcony railing, which she transformed into a practice barre on which she would often stretch during free afternoons.

"I would pretend I was in the ballet studio and give myself a ballet class to get away from everything that was happening in the motel," Copeland says. "I think all of those qualities definitely have worked in important ways in creating the dancer that I am today."

To hear her relate it now, the success of Misty Copeland, center-stage ballerina, would not have been conceivable without 13-year-old Misty, the nervous daydreamer content to twirl in the shadows. It was within this very same fantasy world where the teenager retreated for solace that she discovered an innate skill for mimicking complex positions and choreographies with a precocious precision. A mere eight weeks after dipping her toes into the world of ballet, she could successfully stand on them, followed quickly by a mastery of advanced steps like fouettés, pirouettes and renversés. As she writes in her memoir, "My body knew what my mind didn't yet comprehend: that rhythmic motion came as naturally to me as breathing…I could balance on my head the way others stood firmly on their feet."

For much of its five hundred year history, the art form of ballet was the exclusive province of European nobility and the high bourgeoisie. Emerging from the court dances of Italian and French royals in the late middle ages, the discipline attained its professionalized form in the 19th century, when the Romantic spectacles of Filippo Taglioni's La Sylphide, Jules Perrot's Giselle and Marius Petipa's La Bayadère turned their prima ballerinas into celebrities. They also popularized the style of the ballet blanc, a performance in which the entire stage and everyone on it would be bathed in white. As an aesthetic and a symbol of its "pure" heritage, ballet celebrated "whiteness" for its pristine, otherworldly beauty.

And in the conservative atmosphere of the classical ballet world, such traditions are loath to change. 

When Misty Copeland joined American Ballet Theatre's corps de ballet in 2001, the question of institutional racism in its rarefied halls was not foremost in the young dancer's mind. She had recognized the overwhelming racial imbalance from the moment she entered Cindy Bradley's San Pedro dance studio, but Copeland had persevered and still managed to locate other dancers of color – establishing friendships with various Hispanic, Asian and African-American dancers in her travels to American companies from Los Angeles to New York. At the very apex of the profession, however, there were few likenesses of the ballet dancer that resembled her own.

"I felt like my new image was ballerina, not biracial girl," Copeland says. "I came into the company the same young girl that I was in school. Growing up and wanting to find myself and connect to people. That was hard to do at 20 years old, not seeing one woman who looked like me in a company of 80 dancers. But as a dancer, I always felt I belonged. As a maturing young black woman, I didn't." 

As if to emphasize her physical anomaly as the only black member of the corps, Copeland would often be required to paint her caramel complexion a bright white to match the skin tones of the other dancers, an aesthetic of uniformity proceeding from the ballet blanc tradition.

"I didn't feel it was necessary to turn my skin into the same color as the other girls who were five shades lighter than me," Copeland says. "That's something I stood my ground on. I didn't understand why I had to do that. To me, that was hiding something about who I was and my heritage."

As Copeland continued to work in the background of the corps, she had the nagging suspicion that she was not being considered for more challenging roles. "I didn't feel like I was being pushed as a dancer and an artist," she explains. A 2007 New York Times headline perfectly encapsulated Copeland's own reservations: "Where Are All the Black Swans?" She also recalled the stinging indictment Cindy Bradley had once made of a top American ballet company when it had rejected Copeland's application for a summer intensive program: "They don't want you because you're black."

When Dance Theatre of Harlem director Arthur Mitchell, once a principal dancer for New York City Ballet, offered her a position in the venerable dance company, Copeland considered relocating from ABT's corps de ballet to DTH's 152nd Street studios."But in the back of my mind, I knew there were so many who had come before me, had been on that path and had lost or had quit," Copeland says.

African-American dancers like Janet Collins, Delores Brown or Raven Wilkinson, who, as a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s, would have to tour regularly through the Jim Crow South, often donning white makeup onstage to conceal her appearance from cheering audiences. On more than one occasion, she even stood face-to-face with hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan. All three women were eventually phased out or otherwise discouraged from positions in New York City companies for safety reasons or due to informal, discriminatory policies.

"I didn't want to continue that cycle," Copeland says. "So I decided to stay in the company that had been my dream, and to push as hard as I could to prove I was capable based on my talents."

But the centuries' old strictures of ballet technique and Eurocentric librettos from which performances were typically choreographed are much slower, to accommodate either polyglot styles of dance or more inclusive, multicultural narratives. Ethnic ballets like Dance Theatre of Harlem's 1984 adaptation, Creole Giselle, set in an antebellum Louisiana plantation, or Debbie Allen's annual Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, which transforms the Petipa classic into an international travelogue, are rare events, particularly within the classical ballet community. Troupes like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Complexions Contemporary Ballet had opened modern dance to a more integrated philosophy of form and community, but neither has the historical imprimatur of a classical company. At ABT, the ballet blanc's invocation of whiteness persists as the feminine paradigm of beauty and grace. So does the need for political change in the ballet community require an aesthetic evolution? 

"A lot of these stories are set in ethnic places, but they have largely been portrayed by white people," Copeland says. "There is definitely a racism engrained in the stories and in how they allow certain people to portray certain roles. But the incredible thing about classical ballet is that we have kept the technique the same. I think it's possible to have any person, no matter what she looks like, portray the characters in these stories, because that's what they are. We're actors up there and we are capable of becoming whatever it is these stories need us to be. It's about using your imagination, which is what art is."

Copeland points to another unlikely genre – popular music – as a source of inspiration for the way she negotiates the difficulties of performing, now as a soloist, on the stage. She grew up loving Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, so when she was approached by Prince to appear in his 2009 "Crimson and Clover" video, and in a subsequent series of concerts during which she was allowed to improvise her own routines, the classical ballerina discovered an ownership over her craft that had previously been missing.

"I think it sparked a new power for me at that time…it helped me to gain confidence and to understand what it takes to be a solo dancer," she explains. "It's extremely important to be able to make changes. If the rhythm or beat of the music changes with a live orchestra you have to think on your feet. If you feel like you are not on your leg, you have to make a decision to make it look as though nothing is going wrong."

And with her recent tour-de-force performances as the titular character in Stravinsky's The Firebird and as Odette/Odile in a full production of Swan Lake, Copeland may have finally succeeded in transforming conventional perceptions of culture and color in the world of ballet. It's an accomplishment, to be certain, but to hear her tell it, Copeland's work is just beginning. After all, it takes time to tell a parable.

"There are hundreds of stories I've heard from black women from my generation, generations before me, and the next, that have never been given an opportunity to fulfill their dreams," she says. "These roles now allow an entire race to imagine themselves as a ballerina!"