Soloists in the ballet world are usually fairly anonymous beings, except to those who religiously follow the classical ballet world. They are, as one dancer once put it, the bridesmaids of ballet—in a state of constant waiting—to get a precious lead role, to move up, to be the one.
But Misty Copeland is anything but the usual soloist.
Yes, technically Copeland is a soloist with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT), a rank she’s had since 2007. And yes, within ABT—the country’s second largest ballet company— she is certainly playing the waiting game when it comes to getting plum roles.
But in every other way, Copeland is unique, achieving a level of renown and celebrity that even many principal dancers never achieve.
Part of that is due to her unique status. Not only is she a black ballerina in the very white classical ballet world, but she is one of a very few black dancers to ever make it to her level—a soloist with one of the world’s top ballet companies. Copeland is only the second black woman ever to be a soloist at ABT.
Then there is Copeland’s unique story. She only began studying ballet at age 13 after a drill team coach at the local Boys and Girls Club introduced her to a ballet teacher. Most girls begin training by age 7, if not younger. After only a few months, she was dancing on pointe. Within a year, she was competing and performing.
But that ascendancy came amid instability at home—constant moves, including a period living in a motel; dealing with her mother’s boyfriends and husbands including some who were alcoholic or abusive; and a battle between Copeland’s mother and her ballet teacher that culminated in Copeland briefly seeking to emancipate herself from her mother.
All of that, to say nothing of Copeland’s dynamic presence onstage, has led to the type of offstage celebrity that few dancers, even principals, enjoy. She’s even performed with music superstar Prince. Nelson George is filming a documentary about her.
This month, Copeland has released her autobiography, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.” In May, she’ll appear with American Ballet Theatre, including a major new role for her—the lead role in Delibes’ “Coppelia.”
Here, Fashion Reverie offers a brief, exclusive Q & A with Misty Copeland.
Fashion Reverie: Why did you decide to write your book and why now?
Misty Copeland: When the opportunity came from Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, I was definitely intrigued. I thought the timing as far as where I am in my career could make for a very unique viewpoint.
FR: What did you want to say or feel was important for people to know now?
Misty Copeland: I felt that with the platform I have as an African American ballerina still in the prime of her career, that I could reach so many people. Sharing my story I thought was bigger than me as an individual. I believe it is universal and could influence a new generation to want to dream.
FR: You have been, without question, the most visible and celebrated soloist in a major ballet company who hasn’t—as of yet—been elevated to a principal dancer position. Others have been seemingly fast tracked ahead of you for whatever reasons. Do you think your being so open and public about your issues as a black woman in the ballet world has been a reason why you’ve been held back?
Misty Copeland: I don’t believe this is the reason. I know that my Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie has always been my number one supporter, willing to nurture me through all of my setbacks with injuries. I think that timing plays a role. My late introduction to ballet caused me to have to reassess a lot as I was evolving as a professional, which often happens while you’re still a student. I do believe that more than just the Artistic Director makes decisions and maybe his support alone hasn’t been enough to push me to the next level.
FR: What were the toughest parts of the book for you to write about and why?
Misty Copeland: The toughest was writing about my childhood. There were situations I never actually spent time analyzing. It was a healthy process though.
FR: Do you feel a lot of pressure to succeed, even now or especially now?
Misty Copeland: The pressure I feel is not so much from the black community, but from the dance world. Waiting and watching to see if I’m perfect because maybe that’s what they [the dance community] believe a black woman needs to be to reach this level of success in ballet. I have my own expectations of myself that I feel I need to accomplish in order to make my people and myself proud.
Misty Copeland: I’ve learned in my time as a professional ballerina that the ballet world doesn’t work like rest of the world; which I appreciate to some extent. The structure of respect and history is deep rooted in ballet. So that is ingrained in me because of ballet, to handle things with grace throughout my life.