History-Making Dancer Misty Copeland on How She’s Changing the Face of Ballet

Misty Copeland is proof that it’s never too late to go after your dreams. Unlike most dancers, the world renowned ballerina began her training at age 13, and quickly rose up the ranks to become the first African-American female soloist in more than two decades in the American Ballet Theatre, one of the biggest professional ballet companies in the U.S.

And not only does she spend her days on stage, but the 32-year-old history-making star is also developing her own TV show, continually working on Project Plie, an ABT initiative committed to making ballet accessible in diverse communities, and working tirelessly to ensure that every aspiring dancer knows it’s possible to make it, regardless of their race, gender, or background.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we spoke to Copeland about the women who aided her success, the double-standards in ballet, and the steps she’s taking to change the face of the age-old institution.

Who are the women who got you where you are today?
Misty Copeland: In the beginning, my mom was definitely someone I looked at as someone who persevered against so much just through her own life and raising six children on her own. That was my initial source of seeing what strength was. Once I became a ballerina, and I was a professional, I had a different understanding of the support that I needed.

Raven Wilkinson is someone who came into my life at the perfect time who pushed me to understand how important is dance, and what it was to be a black woman in ballet. She’s an African-American ballerina from the Ballet Russe in the 1950s and she’s her in 80s now. She dealt with not only racism in the world but within the ballet world, and became the first African-American ballerina to dance with a major ballet company.

She actually lives a couple blocks from me and we have lunch and dinners and she sees all of my performances. At this point, she’s still someone who influences me.

What are the kinds of struggles you went through, especially starting out?
Once I started dancing, I knew I was going to attempt a profession out of it. It was never something I picked up as an extracurricular activity. Everyone around me, my family, were all on board with getting me to the right place because I started so late taking ballet classes.

The struggle really came once I realized how rare it is to be a black woman in the ballet world. I was 19 when it hit me and I looked around and saw that I was the only black woman in a company of 80 dancers. It was a struggle within myself to accept that I still belong here even though there haven’t been that many that’ve come before me, and no one next to me to relate to. And going outside of the ballet world and having this kind of conversation about the lack of diversity in ballet has kept me going, like I really have a purpose. It’s causing the ballet world to have to address this diversity issue because it’s such a niche art form that they’ve gotten away with it for hundreds of years, and talking about it on a bigger media platform is putting the focus on them and they have to do something about it.

Why do you think there’s a lack of diversity in the ballet world? Is it because, as a minority, you don’t see examples of it, so you don’t feel like it’s possible?
That’s part of it. Number one, it’s a European art form and for hundreds of years it’s been theirs. Even though we, as minorities, have been a part of it in our own small way, it’s hard to know about an art form when it’s not accessible to you, when the training’s not affordable to communities where all of minorities live, and when you don’t see yourself on stage.

I’ve helped to bring together a diversity and a shift with ABT and the Boys and Girls Club of America to address these issues, starting out with getting children the exposure and the affordable training at a young age with teachers that are trained in the ABT curriculum. The goal is to be able to take a top-notch ballet class at your local Boys and Girls Club. I’m trying to make adjustments that I have control over.

What kind of responses have you gotten from the people who are getting involved?
We’ve seen, especially through American Ballet Theater, a huge shift. The numbers have just gone up when it comes to the diversity in Project Plie in ABT schools. With me having a presence outside of the ballet world is bringing in more people to it. Being able to see a ballerina who has brown skin is giving hope to a new generation that it’s a possible career for them. Some adults don’t see it, but it can change the course of a child’s life.

What inspired you to start ballet dancing?
I didn’t have any inspiration to start. I was discovered at my Boys and Girls Club and pushed to take a ballet class. I was told I was good at picking up movement, and once I started taking ballet, they were calling me a prodigy. It wasn’t really something that I thought I would ever do. I fell in love with it over time.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]

What’s been the most valuable piece of advice you’ve gotten over the years?
It’s so hard as a performer, no matter what color skin you have, to hear so much criticism about what you’re doing and it can really overtake it. It can block your creativity to be so worried about what other people are thinking. The best advice is to not let any other people’s words define you. Pick and choose what you think is going to help you grow, and know when the words aren’t coming from a good place.

Have you noticed a difference in the way female ballerinas are described as a opposed to male dancers? Is there a double-standard?
As a black woman, there’s a double standard. Minority men have it easier than minority women just because the focus of ballet is on the ballerina. It’s easier for them to see a black man supporting a white woman rather than a black woman being the sole star of the show. But I have to say it’s amazing to be in an art for where the ballerina, the woman, is most important valuable.

In entertainment in general, how would you like the way women are portrayed to evolve?
I was actually just watching Mildred Pierce — the movie with Joan Crawford is one of my favorite movies — and I was rewatching the mini-series with Kate Winslet and it’s so interesting to see the difference in their portrayals. In the original, they weren’t allowed to really show her sensuality and her choices as a woman that weren’t really seen on TV, like getting divorced and sleeping with a man, in a way that Kate Winslet’s interpretation did. It’s really wonderful to for a woman to have those liberties now, to be able to show that we have that side to us, too. Hollywood is growing in that way. With African-American women, we still have a ways to go with diversifying parts that we could be good in.

What’s the status on your reality series (tentatively titled The Misty Copeland Project)?
We’re still in the process of casting and getting things in order. From the beginning, I didn’t want the show to be about me and I definitely don’t have the time to have a show around me, So, the focus of it is on the dancers I mentor, and me being a conduit to a career in ballet for them.

Is there any woman in particular, and she doesn’t have to be in ballet, that particularly inspires you?
Esperanza Spalding. There’s something so organic and innate in her that no matter who she’s around, she’s going to be her own person and not be influenced in a way that’s going to change her incredible interpretation of her art, of jazz music. She’s a friend of mine and I admire her originality so much.

Do you feel like as women we can do better supporting other women?
I think so. It’s a part of how pop culture and the media work. They’re constantly putting us against each other. When you look at the reality shows we have now, we have women constantly competing for the attention of men, instead of supporting each other. It’s so powerful when women come together in a positive way, and it’s amazing how far we can go when we have the support of one another.

What do you have going on right now and what’s coming up?
We’re performing on the west coast right now, then we’ll be back in New York next week. We’ll be in D.C. at the end of the month performing at the Kennedy Center, and then I will be back there April 9th to be a guest artist with the Washington Ballet, where I’ll dance the lead in Swan Lake. Then our spring season with the American Ballet Theater opens in May, and it’s the 75th anniversary, so it’s really exciting. I’ll be making my New York debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and then I will make my Juliet debut in Romeo and Juliet as well.

I still have my memoir [Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina] that’s doing really well. My documentary with Nelson George [A Ballerina’s Tale] is happening soon, I don’t know if I can say anything yet about the timing of it.

Not only are you touring and do you have several side projects in the works, but your main career is also very physically demanding. Does it ever just weigh you down? Your mental toughness must be unbelievable.
[Laughs.] You just have to be that kind of person to be a dancer. You rehearse up to eight hours a day, you perform at night, and no matter how well it goes, you have to prove yourself again to a different audience the next night. It’s the challenge that keeps us going. You have to push yourself to be on all the time.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]

Tara Aquino is an entertainment writer based out of L.A. She likes people, places, and things.