Misty Copeland, first African American principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, discusses her career in Lewis Museum talk

Misty Copeland, first African American principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, discusses her career in Lewis Museum talk
Credit: Chanet Wallace

On Saturday afternoon, the very day she officially became the first African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater (ABT), Misty Copeland visited the Reginald F. Lewis Museum for a public talk and book signing. Hundreds of fans, young and old, in jeans, suits, and tutus, gathered to hear the prima ballerina speak and have her sign their copy of her memoir, "Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina," or her children's book, "Firebird.

Copeland's historic promotion from soloist to principal dancer was announced in late June, after she had already been featured on the Time 100 Most Influential People cover, collaborated with Prince, and moved millions in the viral Under Armour ad campaign in which she danced while a young girl's voice read a rejection letter from a ballet company.


During the public presentation, which was moderated by Adrienne Lofton, the senior vice president for brand marketing at Under Armour, Copeland openly addressed the racism that pervades the classical ballet world.

"I think that it's just a deep-rooted history," she said. "It's a European art form, and you're used to seeing white people doing it... so putting some 'other' in that, it messes up the aesthetic. That's what has been said. It's also not as accessible to every community, especially within the United States. It takes a lot of money; it takes exposure. I think that if a community doesn't feel that they're a part of it—that they can see a future—then why would they want to invest in that? Why would they want to push their children into something where there isn't a future for them?"

In her career with ABT, Copeland has actively engaged in diversity initiatives such as Project Plié, an effort to bring more dancers of color into American ballet schools and companies. During a media Q&A preceding the public talk, however, she explained that she has never seen herself as an activist.

"I've never thought of myself in that way," she said. "I just speak my truth and my experiences. I started to talk about race so openly when I became friends with this very small dance community of African Americans and just connected with them and realized that we all have these experiences, and things need to change."

Though she was not fully cognizant of the implications of her race when she was accepted to ABT at 17, she says she began to recognize the importance of her success when she started to receive opportunities to perform in lead roles.

"I didn't know if another black woman would be coming behind me and be given the same opportunities... That's why I danced through a severe injury with 'Firebird' because I felt, had I not done that role and not done a really good job, that I would be given the opportunity again," she said, recalling her brutal performance in which she danced the title role while enduring a nearly career-ending foot injury in the Stravinsky ballet from which she titled her children's book. But her most physically and emotionally difficult performance was as the Swan Queen the ballet classic "Swan Lake."

"I think that one of the hardest things, for me, was allowing myself to believe that I could be Odette, the White Swan," she recalled. "Just because, you don't see that; you don't see a brown woman portray the White Swan. And I never, ever thought I would be her. So I had to let that go."

Copeland's skin color was not the only obstacle she faced in her rise to the American Ballet Theatre. After experiencing puberty soon after she joined ABT—extremely late, as is typical for ballerinas due to their minimal body fat—Copeland was told that she needed to lose weight, that her breasts were too large, and that she was too muscular to fit the ballerina archetype.

"I had to just accept that my body was not going to be what it was when I was 13 and that it's also not going to look like the girl next to me," she said. "It's never going to be that; this is who I am."

Copeland also touched on her difficult childhood in California, where she was partially raised by her single mother in a motel, and partially by her first mentor and dance teacher Cynthia Bradley. She was not formally introduced to ballet until she was 13—particularly late for career ballerinas—by Bradley, after she discovered Copeland at a Boys & Girls Club.

Despite her late introduction, Copeland's talent developed rapidly. A "60 Minutes" interview clip screened before Copeland's talk revealed that while most dancers usually begin to dance en pointe after three years of practice—Copeland was on her toes after three months.

Now 32, Copeland has barely rested, if at all, since her first step into the dance studio at 13. Five days a week, during rehearsal season, she wakes up at 8 a.m., takes a morning dance class, and rehearses from noon to 7 p.m. During performance season, that repeats a sixth day, with two performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Even now as she accepts her promotion, she is not celebrating beyond her museum appearance, she explained at the Q&A. All that is on her mind is her upcoming Broadway performance in the musical "On The Town" later in August.

Copeland recognized the shift she is just beginning to experience as she prepares for her new role as principal dancer, a position she always aspired to, but long thought impossible.

"I feel like my entire career has been just proving myself. And I think I'm finally at a place now where a lot of those pressures I don't even feel I realized were there, they've been lifted off my shoulders. It's a different type of pressure now."