Dancer Misty Copeland has broken barriers to bring ballet center stage
By Maureen Callahan
When Misty Copeland was discovered at age 13 by a ballet instructor at her local Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif., she was so poor that she’d never seen a ballet, heard of ballet or knew what a ballerina looked like. She spent part of her teen years living in a single motel room with her mother and five siblings, hungry and afraid and just trying to make the hours-long commute to and from school each day.
“I had no introduction to the arts in any way — definitely not the fine arts,” she says. “Survival was our Number 1 priority, not extracurriculars, or a career. These were not things we thought about.”
Today, at 30 years old, Misty Copeland is the first black female in two decades to be a soloist at the American Ballet Theatre. This week, she stars in the Met’s production of “Le Corsaire,” just eight months after suffering a nearly career-ending injury. She has danced with Prince, become an advocate for opening up ballet to minorities and the underprivileged and has come to represent the future of ballet in America: more modern, inclusive, elastic.
She’s always been a fighter, and as hard as it is for her to revisit certain parts of her life — more than once during this interview, she visibly fought back tears — she feels compelled to share her story.
“For young African-Americans to feel that they have a chance to see a brown face on the stage, that ballet isn’t this white world that’s untouchable to them — I think having that visual does so much,” she says. “I think it’s so important for them to see me and to hear me.”
Aside from her origins, so much of Misty Copeland’s story is unprecedented. Most ballet dancers begin at age 5, studying in schools that serve as factory lines into the world’s most prestigious companies: the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi, the Paris Opera Ballet. Most ballerinas are lithe and lean; Misty is 5-foot-2 1/2, muscular and curvaceous. Most study through their childhood and adolescence in a fugue state, ballet the sole focus; Misty was discovered so late that she had only a four-year window to complete 17 years’ worth of training.
She also had no desire to become a ballerina.
“I was pushed into it,” she says. “I was just a very nervous, fearful child, afraid of anything new.”
Her mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, had been a dancer and a professional cheerleader with the Kansas City Chiefs, but Misty didn’t realize that she, too, was a natural until she was 12 years old, auditioning for the drill team. “I choreographed a dance number to George Michael’s ‘I Want Your Sex,’ ” she says, laughing. “They made me captain, so I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this!’ Even though I had no idea what I was doing.”
Misty’s drill-team teacher sent her over to the local Boys & Girls Club, where a ballet instructor named Cynthia Bradley recognized her as special. “She told me, ‘You are the most gifted dancer I’ve ever seen, and this could be a path to have a career,’” Misty says. “And I was like, ‘That’s possible? There are people who do this and make money?’”
To compress nearly two decades of training into four years, Cynthia suggested Misty move in with her and her husband, Patrick, and their son in San Pedro on weekends. Misty could commute back to the motel. “It was really hard on my mom,” Misty says. “She was terrified to let me go. But she knew she had to.”
Three years on, Misty’s mother was alarmed: Her daughter was no longer coming to visit every weekend, and she felt Cynthia’s involvement in Misty’s life was out of control. In 1998, Misty won the Spotlight Award for best young dancer in Los Angeles, and as she was coming to national prominence, her mother and her teacher engaged in a nasty custody battle.
“It was a lot for a 15-year-old to go through,” Misty says. “It was everywhere. My life story was plastered on national television.”
Sylvia wanted her daughter back, and so Cynthia took Misty to an attorney, who suggested that Misty file for emancipation. “It was like: ‘This is what’s going to happen. Everything’s going to be better.’ I really had no idea what was going on.”
In September 1998, after much legal wrangling, Misty went back to live with her mom at the motel. She was devastated.
“Overnight, I was pulled from their home and their studio, and it was just, like, this world that I finally felt a part of was being taken from me.”
She was petrified that without Cynthia, she’d lose the tenuous momentum she had to become a professional ballerina. “That was my Number 1 fear: ballet. That was the one thing that was stable in my life. Ever.”
Soon enough, things settled down: Misty’s mother was able to move the family back to San Pedro, and she enrolled Misty in ballet classes in Torrance. It was eight years before she resumed any contact with the Bradleys, and today she says she’s grateful for the decisions her mother made, most especially because she was able to develop emotionally in ways most other professionals don’t, or can’t. “My mom said, ‘I want you to be a normal child, living at home, going to school.’ There are people who are completely ahead of me in terms of technique and experience, but I think, naturally, I was always a performer.”
She was so gifted, in fact, that once she got to ABT, she was chastised for coasting. “I kept saying to her, ‘I don’t think you realize the importance of what you could symbolize,’ ” says artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “‘So the bars and the levels will get raised much higher for you.’”
Not since Mikhail Baryshnikov — who, as a Soviet defector in the 1970s, represented so much more than the art form — has a ballet dancer exhibited demographic-smashing pop-cultural appeal. Google “Misty Copeland” and you’ll find a slew of YouTube videos, fans and casual observers alike. “Holy crud!” wrote one fan. “I started at 12. I’m now 13. I don’t have the perfect stereotyped dancer body! Neither does she! She is inspiration that I can make it!”
It’s that unusual body type that initially sent Misty into paroxysms of self-doubt: Like most dancers, she didn’t hit puberty until very late — she was 19 — and when she began to develop breasts, she freaked out. “All of a sudden, my body started changing,” she says. “It was terrifying.”
Today, her sex appeal is yet another quality that sets her apart: hired as a part-time dancer by Prince, who is so enamored he sees every performance he can; posing for her own calendar; creating her own line of dance wear for similarly shaped women. She is a ballerina for the modern age, a multiplatform brand beyond the Met. “Everything is odd about what I do,” she says.
Misty’s greatest priority remains racial integration, and she says it’s easy for the Obama generation to underestimate how difficult it remains to be a young, gifted, black ballerina. “People say, ‘It’s 2013, you live in New York City, you’re [being] dramatic’ — but they don’t understand the way the ballet world works,” she says. “We’re completely behind the way the world has evolved. Ballet is just kind of staid.”
Last fall, Misty was in rehearsals for the lead in “Firebird” when she began to feel weakness in her left shin. She suspected it was a stress reaction — the beginnings of a fracture — yet decided to dance through the pain. She was afraid to admit something was wrong, afraid she’d lose the part, and hoped to at least get through opening night. “I knew how important the night was, beyond me, for African-American women in ballet,” she says. “For the first time ever, half the audience was full of African-Americans. I’d never, ever seen that.”
After the show, she pulled out and went to the doctor, who diagnosed her with the “dreaded black-line fracture” — a near-complete break. She was told she needed surgery, and was in denial about it for months. In October, Misty underwent a new procedure at the Hospital for Special Surgery, getting a plate screwed into her tibia and bone marrow extracted from her hip and injected into the fractures. She spent weeks learning how to walk again.
Today, she estimates she’s at 80 percent; she performed for the first time a week ago. “It’s terrifying,” she says. “I don’t think I danced the way I wanted to, and I was very disappointed.” Her voice breaks. “It’s rare that this late in the game, you get opportunities to be pushed. I’ve had such a different path that I try not to compare myself to anyone else. Because I’m not like anyone else.”