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Misty Copeland overcomes adversity to star with American Ballet Theatre

Misty Copeland didn't always have food to eat when she was growing up in the Los Angeles area. She and her six siblings competed for sleeping space on the floor of a room in a shabby motel. But just four years after 13-year-old Misty took her first ballet class in the San Pedro Boys & Girls Club — and after surviving a custody battle that made national news — she joined what arguably is the most prestigious classical dance troupe in the United States.

After becoming just the third African-American soloist for the American Ballet Theatre in the past three-quarters of a century, Copeland achieved a measure of pop-culture cachet after she filmed a music video and performed with Prince.

Now 31, Copeland's memoir, "Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina," which was co-written by Charisse Jones, is being released Tuesday. A documentary about her life, "A Ballerina's Tale" is in production. She and a friend are starting their own line of dance wear.

"It's such an interesting road that has gotten me where I am," Copeland, a New York resident, says over the phone from Tokyo, where the company is performing.

"I thought it was important for me to share the negative and the positive, especially for all the little brown ballerinas out there. It's also interesting for me to be writing this when I'm still in the middle of my career. You guys can come along with me on this journey, and we'll see what happens."

On Saturday, she'll participate in a panel discussion exploring common themes in the lives of four multicultural authors at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in honor of Women's International History Month. Other participants will include the Mississippi novelist Deborah Johnson; Lauren Francis-Sharma, who was raised in Baltimore and lives now outside Washington, D.C.; and Charm City scribe Sujata Massey.

In a recent conversation, Copeland described some of the obstacles she faced and how she overcame them. An edited, condensed transcript appears below.

You had a rough time growing up, and not just because you were poor. You describe your mother as bouncing from man to man. One of your stepfathers was loving but alcoholic, and another had a violent temper. Have they read the book?

Not yet. It went through many, many edits. I write about some intimate situations that until now, no one outside of the people in my family has known about. It is a little scary. I am nervous, but I think they'll be OK with it. By the final edit, I was really happy with the way every person in the book was represented. I didn't want to write a negative tell-all. I didn't want to put anyone in a bad light.

I wanted instead to reflect on why people did what they did. I wanted to try to understand why they reacted in certain ways. It was necessary to explain how we became who we are today. My brothers and sisters are the most incredible people.

Have you come to terms with the period of your life in the early 1990s when you were caught in a tug of war between your mother and the dance instructors with whom you were living?

I'm in a very good place now. My mother obviously is still in my life, and [former teachers] Cindy and Patrick [Bradley] are in my life. Writing this memoir has been a really great way of confronting that time. I have to know that none of it was my fault. I also have to accept that they all did what they thought was best for me. No one was trying to hurt me or gain anything for themselves. But it is what it is, and it sucks that I experienced the trauma I did.

When you joined the main company in the Ballet Theatre, you faced significant racial hurdles for the first time in your life. Has that situation improved in the past decade?

For a long time, I felt as though I didn't belong in the company. There were comments about me not fitting in, that black women don't look right in tutus.

Some of the reaction I got from the other dancers in the company made me feel as though I were living in a different era. How is it possible, as New Yorkers living in America in the 21st century, that some think it's acceptable to limit people because of the color of their skin? Just because you haven't experienced prejudice yourself doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

I don't know what people today actually are thinking. But I do think people are more aware of their words because of the publicity I've gotten since I started raising the curtain on this issue.

You've come a long way from the teenager who was paralyzed by shyness. Given how self-conscious you were and how afraid you were of being criticized and judged, how were you ever able to perform?

When you're on stage, you can't see people's faces. You're just up there. There was no way for anyone to get to me. All they could do was applaud. Something about that was very empowering for me.

When I started living with Cindy and Patrick, I couldn't even formulate words in my head, let alone speak to them. If it hadn't been for ballet, I don't know if I could ever have gotten to the point where, at age 31, I'm confident enough to stand up in front of people and give my opinion.

Did you ever date Prince? A lot of the bloggers and gossip columnists sure thought you did.

No. I think that every woman who Prince has ever come in contact with has been mentioned as his girlfriend. But I've been with the same boyfriend now for 10 years.

You've made no secret of your desire to become the first African-American principal dancer in the company's history. What do you think your chances are of getting that promotion?

It's so hard to predict. At this point, there's probably a 50-50 chance. Every time you go on stage, it's a test, and Kevin [Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie] is still giving me opportunities. I'm going to make my premiere as Coppelia [in the ballet of the same name] in Abu Dhabi in a few weeks. That's huge.

But becoming a principal isn't the be-all and the end-all. My career shouldn't be a reflection on whether or not I ever become a principal dancer. It should be about what I accomplish on stage.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina" will be published Tuesday by Touchstone Publishing. 288 pages, $24.99.

If you go

Author Misty Copeland will participate in a panel discussion and sign copies of her memoir at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Call 410-396-5430or go to prattlibrary.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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