‘Unlikely Ballerina’ Misty Copeland Wants to See More Color in Classical Ballet

On and off the stage, it seems like the spotlight has always loved ballet dancer Misty Copeland. The ballerina and model for major brands such as Coach and Under Armour is one of the first African Americans to join New York City’s acclaimed American Ballet Theatre. In her new book, titled “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” the elite dancer shares how her background affects her work.

“I jumped into something that gave me a different life,” Copeland told Alicia Menendez during a recent interview at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT).

Copeland shook the ballet world in 2007 when she became the third-ever African American female soloist in the industry. It’s a lonely position–one that led her to become a vocal critic of the lack of diversity in classical ballet.

“I never spoke as a child and dance, ballet was the first time I felt really powerful,” Copeland said. “I’ve had to share my story because of circumstances from the time I started. I was forced to speak in front of the cameras and I think it’s actually helped me in my dancing.”

Copeland was born in Kansas City, Missouri but grew up in the Los Angeles area along with her six siblings. Her family struggled with poverty and at one point lived in a motel. Her life changed at age 13: After joining a local Boys & Girls Club, she was introduced to ballet and quickly caught the attention of local teachers.

“I don’t think I knew I was good, but my teachers did,” Copeland explained. “They were the ones who said, ‘You have what it takes to be a professional, so let’s go.'”

Misty Copeland with the Boys& Girls Club

ABOVE: Misty Copeland visiting the Boys & Girls Club.

Copeland wasted no time overcoming the hurdles in her way. At 13, she was already years behind compared to other aspiring professional ballerinas. She credits her ballet teacher Cindy Bradley with discovering her and ultimately encouraging her to reach a level of success beyond her imagination.

While her race made headlines from the moment she was signed to the prestigious ABT, she says her socioeconomic background also made her stand out from her fellow dancers.

“It was embarrassing when you’re just a young child. You just want to fit in,” Copeland said.

Copeland says she’ll continue to speak up when it comes to the lack of diversity in her field and she hopes young children will see themselves through her. She also hopes to inspire them to join her on stage. This fall, Copeland will release a children’s book titled “Firebird.”

“I don’t know where I would be as a dancer if I wasn’t African American,” Copeland said. “My path is my path because I am a black woman and I think that’s part of my story.”

Credits: Alicia Menendez, Claudia Pou, Ignacio Torres, Andrea Torres, Jess Blank and Paola Bolano