Misty Copeland felt a bit off walking onto the Women in the World stage at Lincoln Center, which is normally home to the world’s greatest ballets. She had only ever danced onto it before.
Nearly 20 years earlier, she arrived at the American Ballet Theater (ABT) via an untraditional path and became the first African-American prima ballerina in the company. One of six children raised in a family where food insecurity and frequent moves were a fact of life, Copeland came to ballet at the relatively late age of 13.
“The moment I stepped into the ballet studio is the first time I came alive,” she told Robin Roberts in a conversation that leaped through her past, present and future. She started dancing at her local Boys and Girls Club, where, as she tells it, she was fortunate to be noticed by a mentor named Cindy Bradley. Under Bradley’s direction, Copeland underwent an intense four years of training, catching up to dancers who started when they were 3 years old.
In that insulated training bubble, Copeland said, she had no distractions and—just as important—no idea what the dance world looked like. “They never said anything about the fact that I was a black girl and that there weren’t many of me,” Copeland said. “That wasn’t something I was conscious of during my vital years of training.”
That bubble soon broke. Immediately after she finished high school, Copeland moved to New York City and started at ABT, to a rude awakening. In a company of 80 dancers, she was the only black woman. “This used to be the only place I felt I belonged and all of a sudden I was the odd black swan out,” she said. “I know how powerful it is to have representation. It’s literally changed the path of my life and my career.”
Copeland has translated that experience into her work as a role model for other young girls—a task that she takes very seriously. She’s now working with ABT to start programs at Boys and Girls Clubs all across the country.
Now 35, she works primarily in does movies, Broadway and ad campaigns. Recently, an ad campaign she did with Under Armour emphasized that ballerinas are comparable to elite athletes, demonstrating the rigor with which she trains and the all-encompassing concentration necessary to perfect ballet technique. In fact, she pointed out, dancing can require even more athleticism than some major sports. “It takes even more hard work because we have to make it look effortless,” she said. “We can’t just go out there and grunt and run into people.”
That pain is all too real for Copeland, who had six stress fractures recently and now has a plate in her shin. She found the one doctor who told her she would dance again, and sure enough, now she is. That’s not to say that the pain, the ballet company, the books, the ad campaigns and the service work don’t take a toll.
“The sacrifice I make is that I don’t get enough sleep or hang out on Friday nights,” she said. “But when I’m 40 or 42 and I retire I can do all that.”
Additional reporting by Emma-Louise Boynton.