“It’s important for me to set an example of what a healthy image is, what a ballerina can be, that she doesn’t have to be a white woman that’s rail thin. That she can look like the world.” –Misty Copeland to Time Magazine, 2015.
Misty Copeland is a ballerina. She rehearses the sport, one she picked up at the “late” age of 13, for eight hours a day, six days a week. Her body is curvy and muscular, standing at a mere 5’2”. She is black, and she is strong, and she is elegant. Misty has called herself an unlikely ballerina, but she’s a ballerina nonetheless. She’s a ballerina that looks like the world.
When, in 2015, Misty Copeland became the first black principal dancer ever in the prestigious American Ballet Theater, it wasn’t the first time she made history and defied stereotypes in the field. She was the only black ballerina in the 80-person company for nearly a decade. In 2007, she was one of the youngest women to be promoted to soloist in the company, and the third black woman to be given the honor. Later, she was the first African-American to star in the leading female roles for ABT’s Swan Lake and Coppélia. For a field notoriously lacking in racial diversity, Misty’s prominence is changing minds—and changing roles.
“Certain people [would] come in and cast ballets and wouldn’t even give me the time of day or the chance to see if I was talented enough to portray certain roles,” Misty told New York Magazine in 2014. “It’s a visual art form … and some of them just don’t want to see brown skin on the stage.”
But Misty was never deterred. From the beginning, ballet was her escape— “it was the one thing that brought me to life.” Growing up, she was one of six children being raised by a single mother, bouncing between apartments as her mother remarried several times. At one point, she and her siblings were sleeping on the floor of a motel room. It was only when she found ballet at thirteen—and with that, her ballet instructor, Cindy Bradley—that Misty had stability not just in the sport, but in her home: Cindy, noticing the prodigious talent in Misty in her very first class, invited Misty to live with her and her husband so that Misty could train and attend the ballet academy nearby.
Yet a couple years later, as conflicts arose between Cindy and Misty’s mother, Misty filed for emancipation when her mother tried to bring her home and, thus, stop her training. When Misty’s mother hired famous feminist attorney Gloria Allred and a media circus ensued, she dropped the case. “Ballet had become my identity, and to feel that it was being snatched away was very traumatizing,” Misty told the Telegraph. Now, Misty is open and frank about her history, much of which she shared in her 2014 memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.
Misty has said that the life of a ballet dancer isn’t a fairy tale, and while that is certainly true, her unwavering perseverance is a modern tale to be admired. “Misty reminds us that even the greatest artists are humans living real lives,” Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, told Harper’s Bazaar. Better yet, Misty—in her grit and grace, an athlete and an artist—has shown that humans living real lives can also be ballerinas.