Misty Copeland talks to Richelle Carey

Misty Copeland speaks about the obstacles she faced to become a ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre

Richelle Carey: Tell me about the moment that you discovered ballet.

Misty Copeland: I always say that it discovered me or it found me. Dance kind of was always just a part of my natural state as a child. It's something that, whenever music was playing, I was dancing. It became this escape for me that I don't think I realized was that for many years. It was a way for me to just kind of escape the chaos of being one of six children and [of] so many different things.

And moving a lot?

And moving a lot. Just so many things that weren't ideal as a child, and movement became that escape for me. When I was 13 I tried out for the dance team at my public school and was told I should take a ballet class at the Boys & Girls Club, where I was a member. And I think it was when I stepped into the ballet studio, the actual studio, because my first class was on a basketball court, and I don't think I really grasped what ballet was, and I was extremely intimidated by it.

It was when I stepped into the ballet studio that I started to realize this is beautiful and this is challenging and this is the, like, extreme beauty escape that I've craved my entire life.

The story goes from the moment you started you were basically a prodigy. It was just what you were meant to be doing. Did it feel that way?

I don't think I understood what that word meant. Not until I became a professional did I understand the weight of that word, number one, and the expectations that come along with that — whether or not you're going to succeed past being extremely gifted at a young age. At the time, it was fun. I was being pushed and challenged in something that I liked doing. And I looked forward to learning every day and growing and perfecting this incredible art form that I knew I wasn't going to ever perfect, but the challenge of approaching that every day was something I'd never experienced before.

You said it was fun, but what you wrote in your book, you said, "I was a nervous child. And my unease, coupled with the perpetual quest for perfection made my life much harder than it needed to be." How so?

This was definitely before dance that I just never felt a real connection to anything or anyone. And I was constantly just trying to fit in. I didn't want to be the best at anything, I just wanted to blend in. And that was kind of my existence throughout my family experiences at home of just kind of blending in in the background through my other siblings, which was easy to do. I just was always so nervous that I was going to say the wrong thing or be judged, and I think I got used to kind of hiding what was happening at home that I was embarrassed about. And it just became who I was.

Let's talk more about your home. Ballet is very organized. There are rules, right? But you wrote in talking about your family, "Our family began a pattern that would define my siblings" — five siblings, six of you total — "and my childhood. Packing, scrambling, leaving, often barely surviving." You touched on this a little bit, but how did that define who you are now?

I think that it's given me more appreciation for the incredible world I'm a part of now. It's given me appreciation for how fortunate I am to be on the path that I am. To have the opportunities that I have. I think it's given me a thicker skin. And I think that having the experiences that I did at home kind of allowed me to dig deeper. So I look at them as tools and something that I try to turn into something positive.

‘Before dance … I just never felt a real connection to anything or anyone. And I was constantly just trying to fit in. I didn’t want to be the best at anything. I just wanted to blend in.’

Misty Copeland

Tell me about your first ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley.

I think that she was the first person that I felt believed I could do anything. I think my mother definitely thought that. I think she thinks that of all of her children. But just in the situations we grew up in, I don't think it was ever something that was spoken, and Cindy would say it, over and over again out loud. And it was the first time I started to develop an identity of my own. I started to feel that I'm worthy, I have a voice, I'm good at something. And she never made me feel that I was different from anyone because I was African-American, because of my circumstances, because I started late. She would just always say, "You are so extremely special."

That, though, led to a very turbulent time for you when you go to live with your teacher, and then there comes a point when your mother is not OK with that. So could you talk to me about this process that you went through of suing your mother for emancipation?

I was 15 years old, and when I say that 15 years old, I think I was at the maturity and mindset of maybe an 11-year-old. I was definitely a late bloomer and didn't really come into my own until I was probably in my 20s. And I think that dancing definitely gave me the opportunity to explore and to grow into the person that I don't think I could be without it. I would have never become this person without ballet. But at that time, all I wanted to do was dance. And I was being told that, well, by my mother firsthand, that she wanted me to be home, which made complete sense. "I've given you almost three years to live with your teacher and get the training you needed, and now you need to be back home." And then I was hearing from my teacher that if you leave now, you may not dance again. I don't know if that's the priority within your family situation. Your mother is a single parent, you know, just trying to survive and keep her children off the street and in school and fed, and so I was kind of being pulled between these two worlds.

And one of which was a world that I had started to grow accustomed to, the ballet world. And I saw my future there. And the thought of losing that was like death. It was like I would die. That was the identity that I became. It was the first time I had an identity, and it was through being a dancer. And the thought of losing that was terrifying. So to be 15 years old and to be so private just by nature and to have this emancipation that unraveled and to turn — it turned into something more than I ever thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to give me an opportunity to be an adult and to make the decision to continue dancing on my own, that I would still be able to be with my teacher and I could still see my family and everything would be great. But that's just not how things worked out, and I think that both parties had my best interest at heart. And were trying to do what they could to do what they thought was best for me. But being in a public school and having your story plastered all over the media, not just within California but all over the United States, was traumatizing. 

Do you understand your mother better now that you're an adult?

I have more of an understanding and appreciation. Of course, I will never know, probably, until I am a parent. But I try every day to understand. 

You are now one of the world's most famous ballet dancers. You're a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre. You have commercials. You have two books. There's a reality show. There's so many things that have come after this difficult path that you had. Did you ever envision that this is what your life could be?

It's still hard to accept that it's a reality. I'm just so humbled and grateful for the background that I have and the situations I've been through and to still be standing and that I want to forever be able to give back to ballet what it's done for me, and that's this constant battle I have within myself and proving myself to the ballet world. And getting all of the exposure that I've been getting, that it's not about something as simple as someone wanting to be famous, because I've never wanted that. I want the ballet world to be given the respect that it deserves and to be seen by more people, for so many to experience the beauty that I've received from the ballet world. And with every opportunity and every incredible thing that happens, it's still just such a shock. It's overwhelming, and I never step outside of myself and think, “That's me.” It's, “That's a proud woman. That's the little girl I mentor. That's her. That's ballet.” And it makes me so proud to be a part of it.

That is a constant refrain in your book, “For the brown girls. For the little brown girls.” That is, it's constant, and it's clear that that's what motivates you. That's what drives you, and I'm sure there are little brown girls who meet you who probably get pretty emotional when they see you. I can't imagine the pressure, but I would imagine it's gotta be kind of an honor too, isn't it?

I don't feel any pressure from that at all. It's the same way I look at Raven Wilkinson and how emotional I got the first time I met her just hearing her story being the first African-American ballerina to dance in a major ballet company, to experience what she went through in the '50s. I saw myself in her, and I know that's what they're seeing in me. And it pushes me to keep going, to keep setting an example for them to push as hard as I can to make it as far as I can in the ballet world so that they will have an easier path.

Misty Copeland

How does it feel when people talk about your body and it's unusual — how do you process that?

I don't think I really understand as a young adult — when I became a professional between the ages of 17 and maybe up to 25 — I wasn't really in an understanding that this is my instrument and people are judging this and the way that I translate things through my body. I understand it now. And you know, I work so hard to get it to look the way it does and do the things it does. And it takes so much training and discipline and sacrifice. It is was it is. It's art, and people are going to look at it and judge it, and that's what I understand, that that's what I'm going to get back by putting myself out there on the stage. I feel comfortable with it.

I was going ask, are you every insecure about it?

I think everyone's body is constantly changing, so it's a constant battle to maintain, and so of course there are times. If I've been off for a while. But for the most part, no, I'm comfortable being in this position and being a professional now for 15 years. My body is my instrument.

Even when people are being very critical?

It's a lot, and I think that no one can just kind of convince themself of this on their own, like, every day, you know, “Forget the haters and what they're saying. I'm beautiful.” We all have our moments of just — you can't convince yourself of that on your own, and I think it's so important to have support and people around you who are going to be there when you have those moments when you just can't get through. 

A lot of people assume that there are a lot of eating disorders in the world of ballet. Could you put that in some perspective? 

I didn't grow up in the era of the '70s and the '80s, and I feel like growing up and learning about ballet and reading ballet books, I would read about things, and I don't know if times have changed, but my experiences as a ballerina have not been that. Eating disorders and drugs and crazy people like you see in “Black Swan.” We are athletes, and we have to take care of our bodies, but we physically have to be strong enough to get through eight-hour rehearsal days, five to six days a week and perform and do all of these things so you wouldn't last very long, I think, if you were putting your body through that type of malnutrition and then having to stand on your toes and do this incredibly complicated work. So that hasn't been my experience.

Ballet, obviously, is largely considered a white sport. But there you are on the stage. There you are, really one of a kind, for lack of a better term. Have there been moments of racism that you've had to deal with face to face?

Not so much face to face, and I'm happy that I haven't had that intense and dramatic, traumatic experience. But I have dealt with it and definitely been more secondhand, hearing what people have said about me. And people in high places as well as just reading things. You just can't change everyone's opinions. All you can do is be the best that you can be. For me, what's been hard is hearing from the young dancers that I mentor and knowing that they've experienced it firsthand and been told to their face, “You're not the right color for ballet. You don't belong. You won't have a career. You shouldn't do this.” And that to me is just — it's so awful for me to hear.

‘It pushes me to keep going, to keep setting an example for them to push as hard as I can to make it as far as I can in the ballet world so that they will have an easier path.’

Misty Copeland

You're the face of Under ArmourIt blew up on social media. I mean, it was huge. It was wonderful. The campaign is called I Will What I Want. And it talks about professional obstacles, rejection letters. How do you deal with that? 

That's something that I definitely struggled with throughout my early years as a professional. Not really understanding that it's not enough just to be talented. It took me a really long time to understand that we are in control of our destiny and that it's up to us to, first of all, understand what we want. Be able to execute what it is that we want and not to be afraid to tell people what we want. And I think that was kind of the start of me ending up on the path I wanted to be on for my career — was not just assuming these people were going to know what I wanted but to let them know. I work really hard, and I see myself having more of a future as a classical dancer, not just doing contemporary dance. And I think that's when I started to see a change in my career. But that people need to understand — that's what I'm constantly saying again to the kids that I'm mentoring is that just because you're thinking it doesn't mean people hear it. You have to say it. 

That's very insightful to tell young people at a very young age to learn to speak up for yourself.

Especially as dancers. It's ingrained in us in the format of how classical ballet works, where you're forever a student, which we are, but that you're in the classroom but you don't speak. You just receive information from the people in the front of the room. You're not asked for your opinion. So you kind of get used to not having a voice. And you can get lost in that.

I think that you're breaking down stereotypes in a way that I don't even think people realize the depth of it. And what you're doing on the stage is chipping away at that every day.

I hope so. That's the incredible thing about this art form is that we have the opportunity to morph into these other characters and show that we're so much deeper than the labels and how people perceive the way they think we are or what we're capable of. And it's amazing to get the opportunities to prove them wrong. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Misty Copeland with Richelle Carey

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