Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dance at a major international ballet company at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York City, describes a portion of her childhood as “basically homeless.” She and her mother and five siblings once lived in a motel in Los Angeles, carefully saving enough money to buy food at the corner store.
So how did she become a principal ballerina in one of the top ballet companies in the world?
As a child, Misty loved to make up dance moves to Mariah Carey songs. Misty took her first ballet class when she was 13, at a free after-school Boys and Girls Club program in Los Angeles. Her teacher, Cynthia Bradley, saw something special in the way Misty moved, and encouraged Misty to study ballet at a local studio.
Misty’s mother was working long hours and didn’t have a car, so her teacher offered to drive Misty to class. Misty learned quickly. In just a few months she learned to dance en pointe, a skill that generally takes years of practice and training.
“Ballet was the first thing that I felt really powerful and that I was strong and confident,” Misty says.
Then, Misty’s family had to move away, and Misty was afraid she would have to stop dancing. But Cynthia, her teacher, offered to let Misty live with her during the week, so she could continue to take class.
Misty played the role of Clara in The Nutcracker just eight months after she took her first ballet class.
She won first place at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards when she was 15, and the Los Angeles Times named her the best young dancer in the Los Angeles area. The scholarship money she won allowed her to study at the San Francisco Ballet School.
At the age of 17, after only dancing for four years, she was accepted by ABT. For the next 10 years, she was the only African-American dancer at ABT.
Ballet dancers start at the lowest rung of a ballet company, in the corps de ballet. Misty spent seven years in the corps at ABT and was promoted to soloist in 2007 at the age of 25. Principal ballerina is the highest title held by ballet dancers in a company. She continued to work toward her dream of becoming the first African-American principal ballerina at ABT and accomplished that goal in 2015.
Misty has earned praise for her classical ballet technique, although her bones and muscles are shaped differently from many traditional ballerinas. These differences caught the attention of Prince, who cast Misty in a music video and has invited her to dance onstage during his concerts.
Sports clothing company Under Armour signed Misty to a sponsorship contract earlier this year, bringing her story to national attention through the “I Will What I Want” campaign. “It’s incredible to be an artist alongside all these professional athletes,” Misty says about her work with Under Armour.
Misty is the author of the memoir Life in Motion: an Unlikely Ballerina, and a children’s book, Firebird.
Misty is part of a program at ABT that helps recruit dance students from diverse backgrounds.