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Photo: Michael Williams
Photo: Henry Leuwyler/Getty Images
Overwhelming talent and an irrepressible will 
enabled Misty Copeland to break new ground as 
the first African-American principal dancer of the 
famous American Ballet Theatre.
How do you become the best, even when the odds are stacked against you? For Misty Copeland, principal dancer of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, and the first black woman to achieve the distinction in the theater’s 75-year history, the answer is simple: You don’t give up. To overcome hardship and prejudice you persevere. You dance until you get better. And then you dance some more.
Growing up in the southern California town of San Pedro, Copeland had little exposure to ballet before crossing paths with Cindy Bradley, a dance teacher who gave lessons at the local Boys & Girls Club. That meeting was a kind of alchemy, according to Bradley, who can still recall the first time Copeland attended her class, shyly observing the other children at first, and then drawn inexorably to take her first steps. “I touched her foot and that’s when the magic happened,” Bradley recalled. “I knew she was special. She hadn’t danced before! It was an angels singing moment!” For Copeland, stepping onto the warped boards of the gymnasium was a moment of transformation. “I was, like, ‘Oh, I belong here,’” she said. “It was the first time I ever felt beautiful—just to look in the mirror and to be told, ‘You’re what a ballerina looks like.’”
Photo: Jan Schuenke/PLATNUM
“It was the first time I ever felt beautiful.”
For millions of Americans, Copeland’s Cinderella journey from deprivation and loneliness to the pinnacle of her profession is an archetypal story of triumph over adversity. At the Boys & Girls Club, today’s visitor is confronted with a painting showing Copeland in a forlorn crouch, forehead resting on her knees. Around her swirl words like agony, hurting, desolation, hardship and rejection—adjectives to describe her long journey to acclaim. Alongside is another painting in which Copeland pirouettes like a music box ballerina, liberated, while music notes spiral around her head. Nearby, a sign proclaims: “Great Futures Start Here.” Copeland is the poster child for those hopeful futures, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who got to stand tall—on pointe shoes.
Photo: Henry Leuwyler/Getty Images
But Copeland’s story speaks to everyone, because it’s also a story of pursuing a passion no matter the obstacles thrown in your way. Copeland was 13 before she took her first dance steps, far older than most ballet dancers, but her dedication took her all the way to the American Ballet Theatre where she was made principal dancer in 2015. She might have got there sooner but for another major setback in 2012. Shortly after debuting in the title role of Stravinksy’s ‘Firebird’, Copeland discovered six stress fractures in her tibia. It would take seven months of physical therapy before she could return to the stage. Others in her place might have been dissuaded, but Copeland, unwilling to stop working, sought out a rare technique in which she rehearsed on her back. Known as floor barre, the method allows dancers to do almost everything they would do standing up, but without applying any pressure to the feet and legs. “Gravity is gravity,” said Copeland. “Lying on your back helps you work evenly and correctly.” Like Victoria Page in the movie "The Red Shoes", it seems that Copeland is able to endure anything so long as she is able keep dancing. In many ways, the obstacles have given her strength. “It’s tough to be successful in the ballet world,” she said. “It takes a strong and resilient person, and I feel because of the way I grew up I’m much more prepared than a lot of girls.”
Last year Copeland was able to reprise her ‘Firebird' role again, fully recovered and stronger than ever. In the intervening period she also found time to write a memoir, interview President Obama and launch a line of clothing for ballerinas who do not fit the stereotypical mold. “I wanted to create something that could work for every woman’s body and still be elegant,” she said.
“It’s tough to be successful in the ballet world.”
Photo: Michael Williams
Photos: Wikimedia Commons, Siegfried Layda/Getty Images
Founded in 1939, the New York-based American Ballet Theatre (ABT) ranks among the top three ballet companies in the U.S. Its ensemble performs the great classics such as Swan Lake as well as modern pieces at the renowned Metropolitan Opera House.
“Principal dancer” is the highest rank that can be attained in a ballet company. The leading roles, which call for stellar talent, are reserved for these artists. Misty Copeland became principal dancer in 2015, when she was 32—a relatively advanced age for this position.
At the end of December 2015, Misty Copeland returned to her old home town of San Pedro for a special ceremony at which the city mayor unveiled a plaque renaming an intersection of 13th Street and Pacific Avenue, outside Cindy Bradley’s dance school, “Misty Copeland Square.” Children crowded the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of their hero. Los Angeles councilman Joe Buscaino paid homage to the fortitude with which she had dealt with poverty, racism and injury in her path to becoming America’s best-known dancer. A tearful Bradley told the assembled crowd of “the beautiful quiet little girl with so much heart” who had become a member of her family. Copeland in turn thanked Cindy and her husband and son for “making me into the woman that I am, for introducing me to ballet, and for giving me a path and platform to change not only my life, but so many little brown girls’ lives.”
For Bradley, this is the ultimate reward of all that faith and belief and hard work. “Misty has changed the game of ballet—she has forced diversity,” she said. “You should see the hunger for ballet that the kids have. Before, they didn’t have any idea what it was. Misty hadn’t been exposed to it.” She blinked back tears of pride. “It’s huge what she’s done—it’s saved ballet.”