Misty Copeland is the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. Point blank. This could almost be enough words to describe Ms Copeland’s talents. However, she is more than just a ballerina. She has redefined how we perceive the body, femininity, and sexuality within the ballet world. Her story begins like this; she has siblings, raised in San Pedro, California and so it goes that at one point Copeland moved into a motel, and with her siblings slept on the floor. It was around about, at thirteen, that Copeland entered ballet upon the suggestions of her teacher. And so began her passion, the doubts, and her drive towards her story, her own story…
How important is dance to you? What drives you to constantly push boundaries given your success in ballet holds a broader significance as your profile transcends race and body image?
Dance has become this incredible introduction for me to have a voice and speak on issues that are very important in the dance world but also in the general world. Ballet has given me so much. It is my world at this point in my life. The drive I have is something that I think every dancer has. There is a constant need to be perfect. To prove to yourself day in and day out that you can be better. To prove to your company directors and staff that you are listening, learning and growing as an artist. I want to not just be the best dancer I can be, but to push the ballet world to be more opeminded to expanding the ideals of who can be a dancer.
Would you say that you are forging a new path for the way ballerina’s are perceived in regards to their bodies, femininity, and sexuality?
I’m trying my best to keep the conversation open and pursue the forefront of the dialogue I’m having with the media. I want people to feel that you can benefit from the arts and dance no matter what package you come in. But as a professional, it’s possible to have a healthy, strong and feminine body and thrive as a ballerina.
How important is it to you that you are able to have a voice within the ballet world? Would you say you like to challenge your audience to look beyond something?
Yes, it is important for me to have a voice in the ballet world and beyond. As black women, we deserve equal opportunities in this field just as with every other race. I do like to challenge people to think beyond what has been considered the norm for so long. I can’t imagine where I would be now if I wasn’t given a chance as a young student to learn in an environment with no judgment or bigotry. This generation deserves the same.
Do you think your desire to bring black women to the center stage of the ballet arena was your greatest motivation and the reason you have achieved so much?
I think when I realized the lack of representation for us to exist in this space, it gave me motivation greater than and beyond myself. Within that it has made me a better dancer. It gave me even more of a purpose.
Who has been your greatest support throughout your growth as a ballerina?
I think so many incredible black women that have entered my life as role models are the greatest supporters in my life. My fiancé as well. Having support from people you admire gives you this incredible and almost superhuman strength. It’s a beautiful thing that pushes me to want to be that for others.
What was it like to work with Annie Leibovitz and be a part of her “Women” series?
Annie is an amazing woman. A truly special and beautiful soul. She sees beauty in me that goes beyond the exterior. When I walked onto her set for the Women series, she made it very clear that what we were doing was beyond the hair, makeup and clothing. It was capturing raw beauty. I had just come from ballet class, sweaty with no makeup. She told the beauty team to take some shine off my face but otherwise not to touch anything. It put me in a vulnerable position with- out the armor of makeup and all the fluff. But I felt like me!
When you are away from ballet, what is your life like? Where do you find refuge away from your work? Home, gardening, books…?
Ballet never leaves me. I love to cook because it’s another form of art in a less physical way but I also love to travel. It removes me from the atmospheres of chaos I’m consumed by daily, but I still give myself a ballet class everyday no mat- ter where I am in the world.
What is a typical day like for you?
I take ballet class from 10:15am to 11:45am everyday. I rehearse from 12:00pm to 7:00pm. I often have appearances or speaking engagements of some sort during the week. Photo shoots, meetings or interviews on Mondays. When I’m not in a rehearsal season, then I’m on the road performing on tour.
Finally, looking towards the future, is there a young ballerina performer who currently inspires you?
There are many. I’m surrounded by the best at ABT every- day. Every generation of dancers just keep getting better and more advanced than the last. There’s a new young soloist with ABT named Cassandra Trenary. She’s already a beautiful artist at such a young age. There are twin brothers, one in the studio company of ABT and the other is in the highest level of the JKO school. As African American ballet dancers, they give me hope that the future of dance will be bright and diverse.
Will through innovation and action… I believe you live by these words. So can you tell us what Mind Leaps means to you?
It’s hard to put into words. The organization has changed my life. It’s enhanced my approach to everything that I do. To witness the pure beauty in art and how it can make you a better person, give you opportunities to grow part of yourself that I don’t think anything else can. It’s giving illiterate and homeless children in Rwanda and other countries an education beyond school. They’re accessing parts of their verbal and cognitive skills through dance. It’s allowing them an op- portunity to break the cycle of poverty in their families. They are getting scholarships to attend boarding school and have a real chance at a future. It’s so beautiful.