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How Misty Copeland Blossomed From a Wallflower Into a Ballet Icon Carrying the Torch for Black Women

Misty Copeland went from wanting to blend in as a child to standing in the brightest spotlight as a groundbreaking ballerina. The star took E! News through each step of her historic career.

By Samantha Schnurr Nov 15, 2021 3:00 PMTags
Watch: Mariska Hargitay Is Starstruck By Misty Copeland

Welcome to E!'s Tales From the Top, our series on women who are leaders in their fields and masters of their craft. Spanning industries and experiences, these powerhouse women answer all the questions you've ever had about how they got to where they are today—and what they overcame to get there. Read along as they bring their resumés to life. 

Today, Misty Copeland is one of the most famous women to ever be seen en pointe. But there was a time when the history-making ballerina did not want to be seen at all. 

"This sounds so odd, but I didn't have hopes and dreams," she told E! News in an exclusive interview, reflecting on her younger self. "I grew up just a really, really introverted kid. One of six children in a single-parent home. Day-to-day was a struggle, day-to-day was survival. Not just within my household, but just personally. I didn't want to stand out in any way. I didn't want attention on me, especially because we were living in motels, we were living in other people's homes, so I wanted to blend in as much as possible."

As a result, she continued, "I never had any aspirations. I don't think I could see further than my circumstances. Ballet was nowhere on my radar."

But it was in her blood. In 2015—nearly two decades after she first jetéd into the world of dance—a 32-year-old Copeland was named as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, the first Black ballerina to hold that title in the New York-based company's 75-year history.

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Misty Copeland Slams Ideal Body Image

But before all of the formal training that would eventually occupy her time, Copeland's dance knowledge was limited to music videos on MTV, BET and VH1. Still, her career path began to take shape once Copeland became the captain of her middle school drill team and eventually took her first ballet class—taught by Cynthia Bradley, who would become a pivotal figure in her life—at the San Pedro Boys & Girls Club when she was 13. The experience was eye-opening. "That was the first time ballet came into my radar," she said. "It was also the first time that I had hopes and dreams for my future and that I could see possibilities and belief that I wasn't my circumstances. Ballet literally opened doors for everything for me.

Despite her wallflower roots, dance gave her the tools to blossom. "It has the power to kind of transform people. It gives them confidence. It gives them the tools to be able to survive and succeed in situations they didn't think they could in," she said of the art form. "It was like I was another person. Performing wasn't this big showy thing to me...It's just black in the audience. You can't see faces. I felt for the first time, like 'Oh my gosh, I'm in this beautiful bubble where no one can say anything to me, no one can touch me and I can just express myself.'" 

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Which she has with books, a film role, Broadway, brand endorsements and even the title of one of the most influential people in the world—though none of that was on her initial to-do list. "My goal from day one of discovering ballet, starting to learn this technique was to join American Ballet Theatre and dance in that company, to live in New York City and to follow in the footsteps of Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov and Paloma Herrera," she said. Bradley, who she began living with during the week as she trained, "saw this grand future for me," Copeland said, "that I often just looked at her like, 'You're just crazy. I am going to do my ballet and focus on that.'" 

After Copeland filed for emancipation, a public battle between the Bradleys and her mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, over the budding ballerina ensued (Copeland ultimately withdrew her petition and moved back in with her mother). But, by 18, her dream came true: Copeland became a member of American Ballet Theatre's corps de ballet—just five years after she took that first ballet class. After overcoming injury and struggles with overeating and body image, she was named a soloist in 2007 and, nearly a decade later, she finally took her place a principal dancer.

"It was a surreal moment and also was a long journey," she said of getting that promotion. "It had been 15 years that I was in the company, which is unheard of to be in a company for that long before you're promoted to principal dancer. You either get the opportunity from early on in your career or it's not going to happen and you'll stay in whatever position you're in, so it probably took me over a year to really embrace and accept that it was happening to me." 

She had already been performing lead roles, an achievement she tried to focus on whether or not she ever reached that next level. "For me, it was like, this is the point of my art and I had come to terms with that," she said. "Then, to receive the title was icing on the cake and I feel like it was more about what that meant for the Black ballet community, that this was a milestone for all of us."

With every pointed step, the leaps of her predecessors are not far from Copeland's mind. "I often have been in these positions where, whether I was getting a big role or I'm seeing an image of me in front of the Metropolitan Opera House or whatever it is, I feel like I often just see all of the work of the people that have come before me. To be a Black dancer, a Black body that's representing this very white, European art form—I see the Raven Wilkinsons and the Janet Collins and all of these Black ballerinas that put in the work and fought and broke down barriers and didn't have the opportunities that I have."

Copeland is honoring 27 of those trailblazers with her newly published book, illustrated by Salena Barnes, called Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy. "It's been a part of what I think my life's work is: To share these stories, to be a vessel to express other dancers' experiences, to be able to have some type of beginning, a start to documenting Black ballerinas' history in a real way."

For Copeland, to be a part of that history "doesn't feel real."

"I think that ever since I stepped into the ballet world, I've longed to be a part of some type of tradition and history, and I am. I used to think that, 'Oh, ballet. I'm finally a part of something bigger than me,'" she said, "but being a part of the Black ballerina tribe is even more special." 

As she carries on that torch in tights and a tutu, here's some of the wisdom she's gained along the way. 

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On her advocates behind the scenes:

"Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre—I think that he has been someone that has been behind me from day one and, as much power as you think an artistic director may have, there are so many other forces that kind of are challenging one person's idea." Amid disapproval she faced for being a Black ballerina, Copeland also credited "an amazing support team around me to be able to be there on those days when I just was like, 'I can't do this anymore. It's too much for one person to bear.'"

On the lesson she learned from her mom: 

"No matter what we went through or what I saw as a child, she never gave up. It was never like, 'This is just too much. I'm going to give my kids up. I'm going to just turn to drugs.' It was never that. Seeing that example, I don't think I was conscious of it at all as a young person, but when I entered into the ballet world and I started to see these obstacles and within situations where I was uncomfortable, or I knew that I'd have to push through, it was nothing to do that. I always felt like if I could experience a childhood I've had, been through what I've been through at such a young age, the ballet world is nothing and I believe that was from watching my mother's example."

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On how being a ballerina has influenced her as a businesswoman: 

"I encourage our communities to really understand what it means to have children, or just have people in general, be a part of the arts because of all of the tools and advantages it can give you in life. It's not this extracurricular activity thing that's on the side. It's influencing your whole being and how you approach things. It made me a better student when I started classical ballet. It awakens your cognitive skills and it's definitely shaped how I am as a businesswoman and in everything I'm doing outside of my stage career. The discipline, the sacrifice that I understand, the attention to detail, the focus—all of that is instilled in me because of my background as an athlete and as an artist."

On what she wants young performers to know as they progress in their own careers:

"Remember why you do what you do, to value yourself and the work you're putting into things, that nothing comes quick and easy...It's so worth it to take the time to be proud of what it is you're committing to. I think that it's so powerful and important to be an individual. It's so easy to get caught up in the images you see on social media and comparing yourself to that, but being a unique individual is like the one true power that we all have as human beings. I think we shouldn't let that go. I think just keeping a support system around you, staying true to who you are, but also being open and vulnerable, so that you can grow and have empathy and sympathy for other people."

On handling mistakes:

"It's so important to not feel that you have to be on this journey of life or whatever it is you're committed to being in your life—you don't have to feel that you are doing it on your own. I think that's something that's so hard for young people to accept, that maybe makes them feel weak or that they aren't capable of making decisions on their own, but there's so much power in having people around you who you trust, you can rely on, that can give you sound advice, that can be a reflection for you to see what you're doing, the mistakes you may be making and that's been really important for me because I've definitely had those moments along the way and then I've had those incredible people circle around me that have stuck their hand in...and helped get me back on track."

Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy is available now. 

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