Misty Copeland is a pioneering ballet dancer who smashed barriers and rose to the top of the dance world. Her incredible journey from humble beginnings to becoming the first African American female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre has inspired millions.
Early Life and Introduction to Ballet
Copeland was born in Kansas City, Missouri and raised in California along with her five siblings by her single mother. Despite growing up in poverty, Copeland‘s mother encouraged her kids to participate in extracurricular activities.
At age 13, Copeland discovered ballet for the first time when she took free dance classes at a local Boys & Girls Club. Recognizing her prodigious talent, her teacher Cynthia Bradley, who ran the drill team Copeland was on, became her mentor. Within 2 years, Copeland received a full scholarship to study at the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School.
Despite having started ballet very late compared to most dancers, Copeland progressed rapidly. By age 17, she won a Spotlight Award as the best dancer in Southern California. This accolade earned her an apprenticeship at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York City.
Rising Through the Ranks at ABT
In ABT‘s ultra-competitive environment, Copeland continued to hone her skills under the tutelage of great coaches like Raven Wilkinson, one of the first African American ballerinas admitted into a major ballet company.
In 2007 at age 24, she reached the milestone of being named into ABT‘s corps de ballet as a full member. She was only the third African American soloist and first in two decades at ABT.
Through talent and determination, Copeland overcame racial barriers and carved her own path upwards. Her technical abilities, artistic range, and stage presence soon made her stand out. By 2011, she was promoted to soloist where she danced acclaimed lead roles like Gamzatti in La Bayadère.
Making History as ABT‘s First Black Principal Dancer
The highlight of Copeland‘s career came in 2015 when at age 32 she was promoted to principal dancer, ABT‘s highest rank. As the company‘s first African American female principal, it marked a historic milestone. In ABT‘s 75 year history, she broke the color barrier and opened the door for greater diversity in classical ballet.
In the elite world of ballet where minorities are seldom seen, Copeland became a pioneer. Young dancers of color found an inspiration, seeing someone that looks like them at the pinnacle of the field. Beyond ABT, her success sparked larger conversations about inclusion and racism within the dance community.
Performing Iconic Lead Roles
As principal dancer, Copeland dances coveted lead roles in both classical and modern ballets.
Some of her most acclaimed performances include:
- Odette/Odile in Swan Lake
- Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
- The Firebird in The Firebird
- Coppélia in Coppélia
- Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty
Audiences are drawn to her emotional depth, graceful lines, and technical virtuosity. She also dances contemporary works by star choreographers like Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham, and Wayne McGregor created especially for her.
Copeland relishes the opportunity to originate new roles that display her wide-ranging talents as a dramatic, versatile dancer.
Artistic Accolades and Awards
For her historic achievements and artistic excellence, Copeland has received numerous prestigious awards. Some highlights include:
- Dance Magazine Award (2014)
- Named one of Time Magazine‘s 100 Most Influential People (2015)
- Performing for Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace (2015)
- Headlining at the Glastonbury Music Festival‘s Pyramid Stage (2018)
- Named to Forbes‘ List of Most Influential Women in Sports (2019)
She has also performed alongside stars like Beyoncé and Prince, showing her mainstream popularity.
Advocating for Diversity in Ballet
Beyond her trailblazing dancing career, Copeland is also a powerful voice advocating for diversity and inclusion in the ballet world. She hopes to open doors for more women of color to have opportunities to train, perform and lead major ballet companies.
Copeland speaks candidly about the racism she has faced in her career and the need for change. Through mentorship programs and workshops for dancers of color, she aims to diversify ballet and break limiting stereotypes.
She served on ABT‘s Diversity & Inclusion task force and continues to provide scholarships and master classes to talented young dancers of diverse backgrounds.
Artistry Beyond the Stage
A true artist, Copeland also expresses herself through forms like writing, public speaking, acting and sponsorships. Some examples include:
- Authoring 3 best-selling books – a memoir, children‘s book, and health/fitness guide
- Appearing in commercials, films, and TV programs like The Nutcracker and The Four Realms
- Partnering with brands like Under Armour, Dr. Pepper, and Seiko
- Public speaking engagements about her inspirational life story
As one of the most famous dancers today, she uses her platform to inspire young people everywhere.
Continuing to Reach New Heights
Now a highly accomplished dancer at the peak of her abilities, Copeland continues to take on exciting artistic challenges. She dances contemporary works by the top choreographers at ABT while also guest performing with prestigious companies like The Royal Ballet in London.
Though already a legend, at just 41 years old, Copeland still has so much left ahead in her groundbreaking career. There is no doubt she will continue to leap across boundaries and inspire generations of young dancers in the years to come through both her iconic performances and advocacy.