There was time when Misty Copeland, one of the world’s most recognizable dancers, felt lost and insecure. That was before being named the first black principal ballerina for a major ballet company, before the Under Armour sponsorship, the book deal and the documentary on her life.
Copeland, 33, who is a source of inspiration for young women, minorities, dancers and athletes, will share her story in Columbia on Tuesday, March 15 at a fundraising luncheon for Columbia Classical Ballet and Columbia City Ballet. She will be joined by Brooklyn Mack, the Elgin native who now dances for The Washington Ballet and is also breaking barriers as a black dancer.
For Copeland to reach such heights, she first had to empower herself.
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Copeland started ballet at 13, considered late for a dancer, and was quickly singled out by her teachers as possessing extreme talent. She became a professional dancer with American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company at 17 and moved from her home in San Pedro, California, to New York City, where she was the only black woman in a company of 80 dancers.
She was also tall and muscular, nothing like the typical waifish, flat-chested ballerinas she was used to seeing on stage.
“When you don’t see people around you that look like you, that’s hard psychologically and emotionally,” she said.
Copeland would come home after seven-hour rehearsals and order a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eat them in one sitting. When she’d go to the studio the next day, she wouldn’t even want to look at herself in the mirror.
And then, something shifted.
She found a mentor in Susan Fales-Hill, then vice chair of ABT’s board of directors, who introduced Copeland to a cache of powerful and influential black women. She scored the lead in “Firebird” and realized she had a platform on which to change ballet and inspire young minority girls to pursue their dreams.
Soon after, Copeland’s own dream came true. She was named ABT’s principal ballerina in June 2015.
“I think people think I sometimes focus too much on the fact that I’m a black dancer. But that’s so much of who I am, and it’s so much a part of my story,” Copeland says in the documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale.”
Earlier, in 2014, Copeland and Mack made dance history as the first African-American lead dancers to perform a full-length “Swan Lake,” with Copeland as Odette/Odile and Mack as Prince Siegfried for the Washington Ballet.
When Mack recently reached out to Copeland about a ballet fundraiser in Columbia, she immediately said yes. Mack attended Columbia Classical Ballet’s dance school, which suffered extensive damage in October’s floods.
“We’re constantly trying to help each other in the dance community any way we can,” Copeland said. “Any way we can use our name and exposure to bring awareness and raise money for ballet, we try to do.”
In advance of her Columbia talk, Go Columbia spoke with Copeland during a rare moment of free time between rehearsals about the obstacles she’s overcome, her body image and why it’s a big deal that she and Mack are successful dancers.
You and Brooklyn were the leads in Washington Ballet’s “Swan Lake.” What was that experience like dancing with him?
Copeland: I’ve known Brooklyn for a long time. He was in ABT’s Studio Company maybe seven years ago. When he was my partner (for “Swan Lake”), I was impressed by his sincerity and strength. It was effortless working with him.
He’s such a powerful dancer, and I think as African-Americans, we’re constantly being put in a box of the powerhouse, so for him to be given the opportunity to play a prince, and me a swan was really exciting.
What are some of the topics you plan to discuss when you come to speak in Columbia?
Copeland: I think it’ll be a sharing of our experiences and opening people’s eyes up to the lack of diversity in ballet, and for me what it is to be a part of a company where you’re the only black woman. (Brooklyn and I) are both proof of success in the classical ballet world. It should be an organic conversation.
How do you deal with the lack of diversity in ballet and other obstacles in your career?
Copeland: There are so many reasons why there’s a lack of diversity, one being the lack of opportunities in communities with lots of minorities to attend ballet classes and get into ballet schools. There’s also inner insecurities you have that you have to confront. When you don’t see people around you that look like you, that’s hard psychologically and emotionally. That’s why it’s important to have minority dancers look up to us and see that it is possible.
Do you think being the principal ballerina with ABT has changed people’s ideas and opinions about beauty or what the ideal body should look like?
Copeland: I think so. Brooklyn and I are examples of that. We are both muscular, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of performing in classical ballet. The male dancer body and the ballerina body should be evolving with the times, because our bodies are constantly changing. It’s great to have the two images of healthy bodies that we have.
You’ve also been on Broadway, published a memoir and a children’s book and had a documentary made about you. How do you keep all these projects and engagements straight? Does it ever get overwhelming or distracting?
Copeland: I wouldn’t say it’s distracting, but at times, it can be overwhelming. I’m used to having a full and busy schedule. But my ballet career is always first and foremost. When I’m in the midst of rehearsals, my attention has to be completely here. I try to separate everything and take it one day at time. I just try to be present.
That said, it is an amazing blessing to have these opportunities and platforms to share my life story.
What’s the next goal you’ve set your sights on?
Copeland: The goals are endless. They never stop coming in terms of wanting to continue to grow as an artist and a person. It’s only my first year as a principal, and I feel like I’m barely reaching the start of where I’m capable of going.
If you go
Fundraiser for Columbia City Ballet and Columbia Classical Ballet, featuring Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack.
WHEN: 11 a.m. Tuesday, March 15
WHERE: The Mariott, 1200 Hampton St.
COST: $100-$500. Tickets include a seated lunch.