The prestigious American Ballet Theatre’s first black soloist in twenty years took the stage last week, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg in the unlikely, groundbreaking life of ballerina Misty Copeland. The 30-year-old beauty starred in ‘Le Corsaire’ at the Metropolitan Opera House from June 4-8, but her star turn is just one of a string of firsts and a fascinating life story she brings along with her.
For starters, Copeland, a native of San Pedro, California, grew up in extreme poverty. She didn’t even know what ballet was when she was spotted by an instructor at her local Boys and Girls Club at 13. Which brings up another unlikely fact in Copeland’s life—she didn’t even begin training in ballet until her early teen years.
‘I had no introduction to the arts in any way definitely not the fine arts,’ Copeland told the New York Post of her childhood, part of which was spent living out of a motel room with her mother. ‘Survival was our Number 1 priority, not extracurriculars, or a career,’ she said. ‘These were not things we thought about.’ She was destined, however, to think a lot about those things. In fact, she would soon be thinking of nothing but.
A ballet instructor named Cynthia Bradley spotted Copeland’s potential and told her she was ‘You are the most gifted dancer I’ve ever seen, and this could be a path to have a career.’ And that’s what it became. But at 13, Copeland was at a major disadvantage. Whereas most ballerinas start at the age of 5, with money and eager parents backing them. Copeland was not so lucky.
In just a few years, the young phenom had to cram in nearly two decades worth of training. That is, if she wanted to compete among the best. In addition to her age and the color of her skin, Copeland stood apart from her peers as she quickly rose in the ranks of the world’s best dancers because of her physique. Where most ballerinas are extremely slim, Copeland is curvaceous.
Copeland’s rise to prominence, at least at first, also caused some problems with her family. Cynthia Bradley invited Copeland to live with her in order to allow her maintain the kind of focus most ballerinas-in-training have, away from her impoverished home life.
But after a few years of this, life away from her daughter took a toll on Copeland’s mother and a bitter battle ensued for custody of the then 15-year-old. Copeland’s mother eventually won out. ‘My mom said, “I want you to be a normal child, living at home, going to school,”’ Copeland recalled. Nonetheless, Copeland’s life was destined not to be normal. She continued to pursue her ballet dreams, winning awards, accolades, her own 2013 calendar, and even the adoration of pop legend Prince.
In 2010, after The Artist personally pursued her, Copeland agreed to dance as part of Prince’s string of New York City performances. Copeland gushed about the experience to the Post:
‘The energy I felt at Madison Square Garden was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I felt such a connection with the audience because you can hear their feedback, which doesn’t happen during classical ballet performances.’
She says they’ve stayed in touch since and Prince even attends her performances at the American Ballet Theatre, where she gets him box seats.
This, just a few months after a severe fracture and the subsequent surgery to correct nearly ended her extraordinary career. Now, in the midst of her great success, Copeland wants to position herself as a role model for dancers of color.
‘People say, “It’s 2013, you live in New York City, you’re [being] dramatic,” but they don’t understand the way the ballet world works,” she told the Post. ‘We’re completely behind the way the world has evolved. Ballet is just kind of staid.’
And she wants to help change that. ‘For young African- Americans to feel that they have a chance to see a brown face on the stage, that ballet isn’t this white world that’s untouchable to them,’ she said. ‘I think having that visual does so much. I think it’s so important for them to see me and to hear me.’