American Ballet Theatre Star Breaks Racial Barriers

Misty Copeland

Photo By: MasterClass

April 21, 2021

Trailblazing ballerina Misty Copeland recently shared her storied journey to becoming the first African American female principal dancer in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) during a virtual visit with the St. John’s University community.

Ms. Copeland described her impoverished childhood and meteoric rise as a dancer after what is widely considered a late start at the age of 13, and spoke frankly about the need for racial diversity within the mostly White ballet industry, during “An Evening with Misty Copeland.” Susan Rosenberg, Ph.D., Professor, Art History, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, moderated the online event on Wednesday, April 7.

The California native said her childhood hardly reflected her future as a barrier-breaking, star ballerina. “I was completely underdeveloped as a 13-year-old when I started dancing,” she said, noting her “immense shyness” hobbled her.

The fourth of six children, she and her family faced poverty. “We struggled so much financially, and we often did not have a home,” Ms. Copeland recalled. “We never lived on the street, but we were houseless. We lived in other people’s homes or in motels. So, all of that had a part in me being so introverted and not developing the skills to be able to socially communicate with people. It was not until I discovered ballet that I, literally within a year, became a different person.”

Her world changed dramatically almost as soon as she registered for a ballet class at a local Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, CA. “Ballet gave me confidence because there was a focus on me that I had not experienced my entire life,” said Ms. Copeland, who was admitted to ballet school on a full scholarship. “I was being pushed in ways that I was not being pushed in school—and they were things that deeply mattered for individual growth.”

She soon moved in with her ballet teacher and the teacher’s family. “It was somewhat of a culture shock because I went from living in these very diverse or Black communities to living with a White Jewish family and being surrounded by mostly White people on a daily basis, doing classical ballet,” said Ms. Copeland.

Asked by a member of the audience if her “13-year-old self” would recognize her today, she responded, “Not at all. But I think my 13-year-old self would be stunned and proud of the woman I have become.”

Considered a prodigy for her ability to master ballet so quickly despite her late entrance to the art form, Ms. Copeland spent the summer in New York City with ABT in 1999 as part of an intensive summer dance program on full scholarship.

Throughout her nearly 20-year career with ABT, first in the corps de ballet (2001–07), as a soloist (2007–15), and now as principal dancer, Ms. Copeland has performed many of the major roles in the company’s ballet repertory, most notably in Firebird, Swan Lake, Giselle, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, and Romeo & Juliet.

She authored a bestselling memoir, Life in Motion (2014), as well as Ballerina Body (2017), and two celebrated children's books, Firebird (2014) and Bunheads (2020).

In 2014, US President Barack Obama appointed Ms. Copeland to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition. That same year, she also received a Dance Magazine Award and was named to the “2015 TIME 100” by TIME magazine.

Long an outspoken voice on diversity and ballet, Ms. Copeland said that when she entered dance as a professional, she became acutely aware “that I was the only one,” meaning she was the company’s sole Black ballerina, and she remained so for the first 10 years of her career.

While she is grateful for the many firsts she achieved as a dancer, Ms. Copeland recognizes there are numerous Black ballerinas whose talents are ignored by the ballet industry.

She pays homage to them with her next book, Black Ballerinas, which is scheduled to be published in late 2021. She said the book gives her an opportunity to recognize her “incredible support system,” especially the many Black women who have encouraged and mentored her throughout her career.

“These amazing people were there for me and said, ‘You are not alone, and we are going to get through this together,’” said Ms. Copeland. “But, to this day, it is still difficult for so many Black ballerinas to get the recognition they deserve. I feel it is my responsibility to assume the role of inspiring and helping others, because I may not have made it to the level I am at today if I had not been encouraged to be unafraid to be a first.”