Misty Copeland may have started her career in ballet at a late age, but caught up while facing challenges on all fronts – from family struggles to the color of her skin and even her body type. Copeland met these struggles with the grace that only a ballerina could, and went on to become the first African American principal dancer in one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world.
The Beginning, Before Ballet
Born in 1982, Misty Copeland grew up in Kansas City, Missouri along with her five siblings. Though described as an anxious child, Copeland idolized Nadia Comaneci and Maria Carey, and would even “perform” at home to Carey’s songs. Life at home was challenging though. Copeland’s mother Sylvia Delacerna engaged in several unsuccessful relationships that at times resulted in the family having to pack up and move.
The family moved and settled in San Pedro, California. It was in California that Copeland received her first formal introduction into dance when she joined her middle school’s drill team.
Discovering Her Talents
Copeland’s drill team coach recognized her knack for dance and recommended Copeland take a dance class at the local Boys & Girls Club with Cynthia Bradley. Soon after, Copeland began regularly taking classes with Bradley at San Pedro Ballet School and even moved in with Bradley in order to be closer to the studio to practice.
Two years later, at 15, Copeland competed in the ballet category at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards and took home first prize. The San Francisco Ballet awarded Copeland a full scholarship for an extensive training program that summer. It seemed as though Copeland’s career was on a role.
Following Copeland’s return from the prestigious summer training program, Copeland’s past and present collided. Delacerna, Copeland’s mother, insisted Bradley move home. Though Dalacerna was living at a motel with Copeland’s siblings at the time, Dalacerna still entered into a custody battle with Bradley to get Copeland back. Consequentially, Copeland returned home to San Pedro.
Refusing to give up ballet, Copeland pushed forward and continued to fine-tune her skill by practicing at Lauridsen Bellet Center in Torrance, California. Her passion paid off. Once again, in 2000, Copeland received a summer program scholarship, but this time, it was with the famous and influential American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
Against the Odds
Many professional ballet dancers begin dancing at age 3. Copeland began a decade after this age. Despite her late start, she continued to soar.
After completing the summer program with the ABT, Copeland was named the Theatre’s National Coca-Cola Scholar, and she was invited to join the company’s special program for young ballet dancers still in training. Throughout her career, Copeland continued to overcome adversities not just related to her late start and her family, but also related to the color of her skin and her body type.
In 2001, Copeland was only one of 80 dancers selected for the ABT’s Corps de Ballet; she was the only African American and fuller figured than her peers. Though at times these differences presented Copeland with difficulties, she was up to the challenge. Copeland’s perseverance and commitment to the art of ballet grew stronger and her excellence and mastery of the art more widely recognized.
In 2007, Copeland became a soloist for ABT; this was the first time in two decades an African American female dancer was selected for the role of soloist. In this role she danced in lead roles in titles such as The Firebird (2012) and Swan Lake (2014).
Advocate for Others
Copeland shared her story and advocated for the diversification of the field of ballet. In 2013, Copeland sat on the advisory committee for the ABT’s Project Plié, a program offered in racially diverse areas as well as Boys & Girls Clubs to provide dance training and mentorship.
In 2014, Copeland’s story was published through her memoirs in Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. Just a year later, the motion continued in full swing; in 2015 Copeland went on to become the first African American principal dancer in the ABT.
Copeland continues to inspire young women in all communities – both on and off the stage.