Junior Reporter: “Ballet Humbles You, Everyday!”

January 19, 2018

Thanks to our friends at City Arts & Lectures, Xyza Junior Reporter Maisy B. had the opportunity to hear from Misty Copeland, the first African-American Female Principal Dancer at the American Ballet! We love some of the quotes Maisy captures from Misty. Fantastic job, Maisy!

Misty Copeland

By Maisy B.

The Nourse Theater was packed, and the audience was full of anticipation as they waited for Misty Copeland to make her entrance. Misty Copeland is the first African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, a major classical ballet company. As she walked onstage, the audience cheered. She was there to promote her latest book, Ballerina Body. The event also aimed to support the dance programs of The Gugulethu Ballet Project, an organization that brings classical ballet to youth in the townships of South Africa. Along with encouraging artist expression and self-respect, the program gives kids a safe place to be after school.

Misty started dancing at the age of twelve, a comparatively late age to start ballet, when a ballet teacher offered a class at the Boys and Girls Club she attended along with her five siblings.

Misty described her childhood as “a day to day struggle to get by.” She also said that this environment can “bring an inner strength.”

The dance teacher told Misty that she had the physical qualities for ballet, so Misty decided to give it a try. However, she did not enjoy her first lesson at all. Although when describing her next lesson, she recalled, “When I first put on a leotard and stepped onto the dancefloor, I absolutely fell in love with ballet.” Amazingly, after only six months, she went en pointe. She said, “Going en pointe can be dangerous; it usually takes years.” She added that usually “there are no shortcuts with ballet.”

When Misty was fifteen, she won first place in the “Music Center Spotlight Awards.” This gave her the opportunity to study at the San Francisco Ballet School. There she started to understand what it takes to be a professional dancer. For a dancer, “the learning never ends, it is a lifetime of commitment and sacrifice.” She compared taking daily dance classes to tuning an instrument. In 2000, Misty joined the studio company of ABT (American Ballet Theater). This meant a big move for her from California, where she had been raised, to New York City.

At first she felt that she would never fit in or be accepted in the world of ballet. The diversity found in the street outside the dance studio was not reflected in the dance company. However, Misty began to find mentors in the African American dance community, including veteran dancer Raven Wilkinson, who said that “dancers become teachers—that is part of the ballet culture.” Misty decided that “this is not about me but what I can do for the ballet world.” This was her focus when she went of tour as part of the stage act, with rock star Prince. For Misty, the tour was not about fame but “for communities to see me and what I represent.”

She realized that for many people, “I’m an introduction to the ballet world … and art changes people’s lives.” 

Back at ABT in 2007, Misty became the company’s second African American soloist. Then towards what could have been the end of her career, at the age of twenty-nine, Misty was promoted to principal dancer, thereby becoming the first African American woman to be promoted to this position in the company’s seventy-five year history. She said, “Still dream it could be possible, never say anything is not possible.” Her most important role at that time was the iconic title role in the ballet Firebird. Misty talked about the excitement she felt when she saw the poster of herself in this role in NY Subway stations and then many feet taller on the front of the Metropolitan Opera House.  It was memorable for her to see so many African American people be part of the audience at the Met.

She remembered how it was “exciting for the black community to feel they belonged in that space … this changed the course of my life and my career.”

Dancing this role was so important to Misty that she ignored the severe pain in her one of her shins. She was suffering from stress fractures in her tibia—almost full breaks. After visiting several doctors, she found one that told her he could operate and that she might still be able to dance. She now has a metal plate in place of her shin muscle. Recovery took over a year, but Misty continued dance class almost immediately using floor barre techniques. On her return to the stage, dance critics said she was a more mature and sophisticated dancer.

Since then, Misty has published three books, including Life in Motion: an Unlikely Ballerina, and most recently, Ballerina Body, which I highly recommend. It is a collection of yummy recipes and helpful ballet stretches, and it promotes a healthy mind set. It is also laid out in a practical way and beautifully photographed.

Misty is grateful to be part of ballet history. “Ballet humbles you, everyday!” she said. “The technique is beautiful; it uses parts of your brain and body that nothing else can activate.” Misty continues to support The Boys and Girls Club, where many branches now have dance programs. Misty believes art changes people’s lives, in particular her own, from being a child who never spoke to becoming an articulate advocate. As she says, “Dancers make the impossible natural.”