Poetry In Motion: Ballerina Misty Copeland On Standing Out

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Not all bosses come in fitted business suits. Consider 32-year-old Misty Copeland a primped and polished powerhouse of sorts, changing the way the world sees ballet one pirouette at a time.

The Cali-bred ballerina is currently a soloist at the American Ballet Theater, one of the nation’s leading classical ballet companies, after pushing through adversity for her spot at the front of the stage.

“I never saw myself through anyone,” she said. “Once I became a professional, I realized there hasn’t been someone on the path of really making it to the top of an elite ballet company. I went through my period of, ‘Oh, I don’t know if this is possible’ because it’s never been done before—an African American and a female. I started to have the courage and believed in myself that I can set my own path.”

In addition to working her way up from drill team captain at the Boys and Girls Club to her coveted ABT spot, she’s danced alongside Prince in his “Crimson and Clover” video, penned a memoir and children’s book—Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina and FIREBIRD, respectively—and became the face of several sport and dance campaigns.

Here, Misty dishes on the driving forces behind her livelihood, unrelentleslly advocating for more brown faces in major ballet companies and how she keeps her day-to-day life en pointe.

My MLK moment (Realizing the dream):
As a child, I didn’t really see a future or anything in particular that was something I really wanted to be. The first time I took a ballet class I think that’s when I started to see “Oh, there’s something that I’m good at and something I can make a life out of.” Around age 16, when I came to NYC [for] American Ballet Theater, I realized that this was my dream and this is exactly where I want to be.

The push factor:
Passion. With a company like American Ballet Theater, it’s a pretty small percentage of dancers that change their entire lives to get to this moment and still don’t make it. Something about that challenge drove me to push even harder. Once I was accepted in ABT there came a second challenge of being the only African-American woman in the company. It was another push that was like, “You have to overcome this. You have to show that it’s possible to not fit in the mold of what people think a ballerina is, and also to set an example for the next generation.”

Morning routine:
Breakfast at 8am, ballet class at 10:15am, and then rehearsal starts at noon and it goes until 7pm. Five days a week.

On the pressures of being the “token” black female ballerina:
I feel like it was a position I’ve taken on. Not because it was put on me but because I decided to. It’s a decision I made to speak about race and diversity because I know how important it is. I feel comfortable in kind of holding that position. I know the power that I hold for so many people to be able to see themselves through. So I definitely have never felt pressure to be in this position.

Biggest personal win:
Just getting the opportunity to do these very iconic ballets that have typically only been done by white women. Having the opportunity to dance the role of “The Fire Bird.” Though so many people have done it, no one did it with a company like American Ballet Theater. Also getting the chance to perform in Swan Lake as the white and the black swan. One known ballerina hasn’t done that role except for Lauren Anderson. No black woman had done that with a major company. For people to see the swan with brown skin is a huge step for the ballet world.

My (Imaginary And Real) Mentors:
Definitely Raven Wilkinson in real life. She’s a former ballerina who is African American and experienced so much diversity in a time that was so difficult to exist as an African American, period. She kind of carries me, even on the days I’m not talking to her on the phone. She was that person in my head, too, before I ever met her. But maybe Maya Angelou.

Favorite Maya Angelou quote:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’m still working on _____:
Perfecting my craft. And that will never end. To be in a classroom with young students is probably the hardest on your ego and your technique because they just get better and better. It pushes yourself to get back in that place where you were when you were 13.

Bag necessity: My tweezers. I can’t live without them.

Style mantra:
I believe in being comfortable, but when you look good, you feel good. I feel good in a pair of pumps.

Unlikely inspiration:
I don’t know if it’s unlikely, but I think Beyonce handles herself pretty well and she’s definitely a boss.

The definition of a boss:
Understanding and owning the power that you may have. Knowing that you can stand for so much. It’s not just to take the opportunity one has to be successful lightly. Being a boss is taking it to that next step, really standing for something and not taking opportunities for granted. To be able to carry and bring people up with you.

Photo Credit: Gregg Delman

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