She was born in the 80s as Misty Danielle Copeland in Kansas City, Missouri. One of six siblings, she grew up with a single mother, moving around a lot and dealing with the effects of financial instability. When Misty moved with her family from Kansas City to San Pedro, California, her first formal encounter with dance was on the drill team of her middle school. She had taught herself to do handstands and cartwheels; in her mind, Misty created a world of expression through dance. She saw herself performing in front of crowds with the most important applause coming from her mother, of course.
That once shy, quiet girl who found herself through movement is the woman we know today as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Misty became the first Black woman in the company’s 75-year history to be promoted to that position in 2015.
Some of Misty’s most iconic classical ballet roles include Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” Juliet in “Romeo & Juliet,” “Giselle,” “Manon,” “Coppelia,” Kitri in “Don Quixo-te,“ and “Firebird,” to name a few.
As have many others, my love for ballet led me to follow Misty’s career. But it wasn’t until I read her story that I found myself reading parts of my own. Her openness and willingness to share her journey and break barriers is not only admirable, but the basis of her life’s work.
I had the opportunity to chat with Misty for this very special Arts + Culture cover story. Read on…
How does your start in ballet compare to the shift you helped create in the industry today?
I never imagined that my career could have taken me where it has or given me the purpose and responsibility that I feel. When ballet found me at 13 years old on the basketball court of my local Boys and Girls Club, ballet was an opportunity to experience beauty and to feel a part of a community I didn’t know I could belong to. It gave me an escape from my hectic and unstable home life, as well as a way of expressing myself. But what it’s become is unbelievable.
Don’t compare yourself to other people. Stand in your uniqueness; don’t run from it.
I believed immediately that dance and art would give me the tools to succeed in other aspects of life, but to see and experience my personal growth have surpassed what I imagined. The fact that my ballet career has given me a platform and voice to carry on the legacies of so many Black dancers who opened the door for me is not at all what I thought I’d be able to do. I feel it is my responsibility as a Black ballerina to share my craft with my community and beyond, to broaden our audiences and to educate others about those Black and brown dancers who have contributed to this art form and do not get the recognition.
What has been your favorite/least favorite part of this job?
The favorite part of my job is that I get to do what I love for a living! That’s pretty special. I get to travel the world and use dance to communicate with people everywhere.
The downside is the institutional exclusion and the lack of diversity. That’s definitely my least favorite part of classical ballet. I have found what I love about this art form, which is the root and purity of the incredible technique that has stayed relevant for over 400 years and can transcend cultures, but ballet also neglects entire communities and doesn’t tell the stories of a broader people.
What has been the best advice you’ve ever received in order to “make it”?
There’s so much incredible advice I’ve been given throughout my career. Don’t let other people’s words define you. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, love you, and will give you feedback that will help you grow. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Stand in your uniqueness; don’t run from it.
Misty’s newest book, “Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy,” will publish in November. She is also working on her first project, “Flower,” a silent arts activism film that uses dance as a way to raise awareness about homelessness.
What nugget of wisdom can you give to a young girl or boy wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Remind yourself often why you dance. We tend to get caught up in the work or get down on ourselves and compare our work and worth to others, but we dance because it’s an incredible experience. Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with a strong circle of supporters who will be there for you through it all. Believe in yourself!
Which has been your favorite career moment to date?
If I had to choose one, I would say my favorite moment was in 2012 when I made my NYC debut at the Metropolitan Opera House as “Firebird.” It was my first principal role in a classical work and the first time I’d ever seen the theater more than half full of Black and brown people. It was an extremely special evening and following that performance, the demographic of people coming to see me and American Ballet Theatre perform changed. When people see it, they feel they can be it and will support and join in.
You are literally in our history books. What do you hope will be your legacy?
I hope my legacy will be to carry on the legacy of others. I hope to be that bridge and conduit to the past and future of Black dancers.
An avid philanthropist, Misty is also an ambassador for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, of which she is also an alum, and MindLeaps, an arts education program based in Rwanda that helps young people get off the streets and into an academic setting to help enhance their lives.
What’s next for you?
More dancing, more books to write, and so many more ways to bring this art form to more people through my production company, Life in Motion Productions; through the newly-established Misty Copeland Foundation; through the amazing partnerships and collaborations I’ve been so fortunate to have with incredible brands; and through my commitment to art as activism. There is a lot of work to do, but it’s worth it.
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