Women's History Month Part 1: Misty Copeland
I can think of no better way to open Women’s History Month than to focus on an artist who broke racial and economic barriers to rise to the pinnacle of the classical dance world. While her journey sounds like a Hollywood script, it is an incredible true tale that begins with community-based arts outreach, which is at the heart of what we do at Ruth Eckerd Hall through our Marcia P. Hoffman School for the Arts. – Susan M. Crockett, President & CEO
Misty Danielle Copeland was born on September 10, 1982 in Kansas City, Missouri. The fourth of six children of a single mother, she was living in a motel room with her family when she stumbled upon a ballet class at the Boys and Girls Club. In the professional ballet world, children often begin dancing at pre-school age, Misty was 13 years old stepping into her first class. Within a couple of weeks her teacher recognized Copeland’s out-of-this-world potential and admitted her into her private ballet studio on a full scholarship. It wasn’t only her late start that made Copeland unusual among her peers; traditionally ballerinas are rail-thin, not ripped like a world-class sprinter. They come from affluent backgrounds and are almost exclusively white.
Extraordinary talent propelled her forward. Within three months, she was dancing on pointe — a milestone that usually takes girls 10 years of training to reach. Only four years later, she joined the company at American Ballet Theater (ABT) and started dancing professionally, soon a featured soloist. On June 30, 2015, Misty Copeland was promoted to Principal Dancer, the first African-American woman in ABT’s 75-year history.
Copeland has always been honest about her insecurities and self-doubt. Gangly as a teen, she could not foresee that the same physical qualities that made her self-conscious would make her a natural prima ballerina.
“I felt so insecure about the way I looked,” Copeland recalled. “I had big feet and long legs and this little peanut head. And then I stepped into the ballet studio, and that was like perfection and beauty. It was interesting to feel for once like I was beautiful and I stood for something, and I had a voice and it came through dance.”
Despite talent, fortitude, courage and critical acclaim, Copeland said it remains “really, really difficult” to be an African-American woman in American ballet. “It’s hard to be alone, it’s hard to know there’s never been a real path that I can follow and feeling like at times there’s no path for me, I’m going to give up. Just owning that I can lead others was a huge step for me in my career.”
And lead she does.
Since garnering international attention, Copeland’s role as an activist includes empowering children of color – authoring “Firebird” in 2014, appearing in “Bookmarks” in 2020, and founding Project Plié, which reaches out to underrepresented communities to foster diversity in American ballet. Most recently, Copeland co-founded Swans for Relief, raising funds to alleviate the COVID-19 financial burden on the dance community.
“Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina” (2014, a memoir, co-author Charisse Jones)
“Firebird” (2014, a children’s book, illustrator Christopher Myers)
“Ballerina Body” (2017, a health and fitness guide)
“Black Ballerinas” (available November 2021)
Photo credits: Brad Trent (top), Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times (bottom)
Sources included USA Today, Dance Magazine, NPR, Good Morning America, mistycopeland.com, abt.com, Wikipedia