Misty Copeland was already arguably the most famous ballet dancer in the United States. But this week, the 32-year-old made history: she became the first African American woman to be named principle dancer with the legendary American Ballet Theatre.
For Copeland, who just starred in the company’s production of “Swan Lake” at the Met, it represents the culmination of a longtime dream — one she’s repeated “like a mantra,” but wasn’t sure she’d ever achieve.
The dancer describes herself as an “unlikely ballerina” (it’s the subtitle of her 2014 memoir), and it’s true: whatever your ballet stereotypes, it’s likely Copeland doesn’t fit them. Here’s how she went from “pretty much homeless” to dance superstar.
Misty Copeland was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1982. When she was 2, her parents divorced, and her mum, Sylvia, moved Copeland and her three older siblings to start over in Bellflower, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. The next time she saw her biological father, she would be 22 and a dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.
Copeland spent her childhood 'dancing to Mariah Carey videos, rewatching a movie about the gymnast Nadia Comaneci, and being very prepared for school, where she was a hall monitor and the class treasurer,' wrote Rivka Galchen in a 2014 New Yorker profile.
But she didn't take any formal gymnastics or dance classes until she was 13 -- insanely late for a female ballet dancer. These kids are auditioning for the super prestigious School of American Ballet. They're between 6 and 10.
At 13, Copeland tried out for her middle-school drill team with a piece she choreographed to George Michael's 'I Want Your Sex.' That night, she got a call from the coach: she was going to be captain of the 60-person squad. It was her first audition.
Noticing her potential, her coach pointed her toward ballet classes as the local Boys & Girls Club. 'I wasn't excited by the idea of being with people I didn't know, and though I loved movement, I had no particular feelings about ballet,' Copeland told the New Yorker. Here's her teacher, Cindy Bradley, working with a fellow student.
She was a natural. Immediately, Bradley had a vision of 'this little girl becoming amazing.' Soon, she was going to classes 5 days a week.
It takes most dancers about three years to get 'en pointe' -- dancing in toe shoes. It took Copeland three months.
Money was tight, and eventually, her family moved into two rooms in the Sunset Inn in Gardena -- too far for her to keep commuting to Bradley's studio, so she started living at Bradley's house during the week. That went on for three years.
Copeland thrived, winning major competitions after only a few years of study. 'I just loved it,' she told the LA Times. In the summer of 1998, she was accepted to the San Francisco Ballet's summer intensive on full scholarship.
After that summer, her mum wanted her to move home, but Copeland and Bradley thought that would hurt her career. An ugly battle ensued. She filed for emancipation, but she was too young. 'It was a nightmare,' Copeland told Galchen.
The next summer, Copeland got into the American Ballet Theatre's summer intensive, and was invited to join the studio company. 'She has what I call 'the Package,'' ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie observed to the LA Times. 'Very beautiful body proportions, musicality and coordination. People usually have two of the three, but she has all three.'
She made the agonizing decision to wait, but a year later, she moved to New York. At 18, she became a member of the ABT's Corps de ballet and began performing at Lincoln Center.
An early injury caused a doctor to worry about her bone strength, and he induced a delayed puberty. 'It was a shock,' she told Elle. 'I had no idea what to do with my body. It wasn't responding like it used to. It was like starting over.'
But Copeland continued to rise through the ranks, and at 24, she was promoted to soloist with the company -- the third black, female soloist in ABT history.
Her race was notable in the extremely white world of ballet. 'I had never, ever, thought, I'm black, and no one else looks like me,' she explained to New York Magazine in 2011. 'At ABT, I realised, Oh, I do have this other thing that could work against me or for me.'
Her next goal was clear: to become the first African American principle dancer in the history of the ABT.
Copeland was already dancing leading roles, but she had not yet reached the very top. 'The difference between soloist and principal is the ability to understand and master the smallest details,' notes the Huffington Post. There was speculation she would be promoted to principle after dancing the title role in 'The Firebird' in 2012, but she was sidelined with an injury.
In 2014, the already-famous Copeland became a household name when she starred in a viral ad for the athletic apparel brand Under Armour. In any given year, 6.5 million people see live ballet. The ad has more 8 million views on YouTube.
On June 30th, 2015, the 32-year-old became the first African American woman to be named principle in the ABT's 75-year history, and she hopes her achievement will inspire others. 'It's not me up here,' she said in a press conference. 'It's everyone that came before me that got me to this position.'
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