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September 8, 2015 by  
Filed under Cover Story, Feature

‘Dancing makes me happy’

As the first African-American to be named principal dancer of the renowned American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has become one of the highest-profile performers in the world.

The 32-year-old, who drew international headlines when she made her Broadway debut in August, has captivated the world with her grace and fascinating biography. Before the appointment to principal dancer that earned her a place in the history books, Copeland sat down with Black Image for a wide-ranging discussion about her life, accomplishments and dreams of a legacy.

When did you realize that pursuing a career as a professional ballet dancer would present different hurdles for you?

I think I realized it when I first moved to New York City and joined the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company. Being black had never been discussed in the California studio where I trained. I was just another dancer. When I moved to Manhattan, my first thought was that I was being singled out because I trained for such a short period of time. But then I realized that I was the only black girl in the class. Over time, I was introduced to black women who were successful, smart and accomplished — and I no longer felt so alone. That’s why I’ve felt that it’s so important for me to speak about my experiences, so it can help others as they travel the same path.

What have been some of your most memorable moments as a performer?

There are so many great memories, both with the American Ballet Theatre and performing as a guest artist. When I performed as Odette/Odile for the first time in “Swan Lake” last year with the American Ballet Theatre in Australia — it was incredible. Especially because I never thought that I would ever have that opportunity. And now, I’m preparing to dance the role again during our annual Metropolitan Opera House season and it’s so exciting. I am also preparing to perform for the first time as Juliet in American Ballet Theatre’s “Romeo & Juliet” — another role that I thought I would never have the opportunity to do. Last year I really enjoyed performing the role of Swanhilde in “Coppélia,” which was my first time performing the lead in a full three-act ballet production. It was a great process, researching the character and learning the steps. I loved performing with Prince. It was through collaborating with him that I believe exposed the art of ballet to a bigger audience. Many people tell me, even today, that they were first introduced to ballet — and learned to appreciate it — when they saw my dance performance with Prince.

Do you receive a lot of comments from young girls who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

I receive letters, messages on Facebook, Twitter posts and you name it from young girls. I’m always inspired by how these young girls are interested in ballet. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, and it’s what classical ballet needs. All one needs is the right ballet training and encouragement. Little girls might not realize that they could be the next Paloma Herrera, Lauren Anderson, Gelsey Kirkland or Alicia Graf Mack. The most touching messages say that I have inspired a young girl to take her first ballet lesson, and she loved it. Some students have sent me messages that they have chosen me as the subject for their class report, and it made them research some of the ballets that I’ve performed. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll end up going to see a ballet for the first time.

Photo credit: Gregg Delman

What are some of the things that you hope to pursue outside of dance?

I’m already doing many of these things. I have so much happening, and I owe it all to ballet. I am an ambassador with the Boys & Girls Clubs; I have partnerships with Under Armour and Seiko; and I work with President Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. I do my best to do things outside my career that are fun, while remaining true to ballet — my first priority.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want to be remembered for making positive change in the ballet world.

What do you enjoy doing outside the world of dance?

I love watching old movies, shopping and traveling.

What would your words of advice be to other young African-American ballet dancers who want to accomplish worldwide stardom?

I had some really incredible people who mentored me. I think it’s so important for young dancers of color to have someone who looks like them who they can talk to. I tell them to be true to themselves.

How far has the dance world come in terms of diversity?

I think we’re making progress. The fact that I’m having the opportunity to dance roles such as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” and Juliet in “Romeo & Juliet,” means a lot. When I think about the fact that Lauren Anderson performed the same role in full productions in the 1990s and early 2000s with Houston Ballet, I am reminded that we are continuing this journey. Courtney Lavine, a really talented dancer who joined the American Ballet Theatre in 2010, is in the Corps de Ballet. Erica Lall, another wonderful young dancer, joined the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company last year. The first 10 years of my career, I was the only black woman in a ballet company of 80 dancers. So, to have other black women in the studio and main dance companies now, and to see how diverse ballet schools are becoming, are signs of growth and change in the field.

Where does the soul of dance meet the soul of music?

I always felt a connection to music and to movement. Growing up, we were surrounded by R&B, soul music, and hip-hop. The closest thing I could find to dance was gymnastics that I watched on TV. It’s how I discovered Nadia Comaneci. But ballet was exactly what I was searching for. It was my environment that made me dance, and be the person I am today.

What music do you listen to when you are relaxing and not touring?

I love hip-hop music and you will always find some Drake on my playlist. But I also absolutely love music artists like Aretha Franklin, Sade and Jazmine Sullivan.

Who are some of the dancers that have inspired and influenced you?

Well, a few that really inspire me include Raven Wilkinson, Gelsey Kirkland and Paloma Herrera.

What makes you happy?

Dancing makes me happy. Being in the rehearsal studio and preparing for a performance. Getting on stage and bringing characters to life through dance. That makes me happy.

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