Black History Month Spotlight | Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland. Photo by Henry Leutwyler.

From taking her first ballet class on a basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club to becoming American Ballet Theatre’s first African American female principal dancer, Misty Copeland proved that with determination, the right guidance, and community support anything is possible. 

Misty Copeland was born on September 10, 1982 in Kansas City Missouri and later moved to San Pedro, California with her mother and five siblings. Copeland was first introduced to the world of dance after joining her school’s drill team. Surprised by her talent, the team’s coach suggested that Copeland take classes at the local Boys & Girls Club, where she also captured the attention of the program’s ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley. Although most ballet dancers begin dancing as early as three or four years old, Copeland’s late start at age 13 did not overshadow her talent and the potential that she possessed. Money was sparse in Copeland’s single-parent household, but with assistance from the community in purchasing pointe shoes and leotards, in addition to having her fees waived, Copeland was able to take classes with Bradley at the San Pedro Ballet School. Copeland later moved in and lived with Bradley and her family for 3 years, because the studio was too far from her home to travel back and forth.  

At 15, Misty Copeland participated in the San Francisco Ballet Summer Intensive program on a full scholarship. She was invited to study with the company afterwards, however, she turned that offer down. After completing a summer intensive session with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Copeland moved to New York and joined the company in 2001. Six years later, she became the company’s second African American female soloist. After 14 years with ABT, Copeland was promoted to principal dancer, making her the first African American woman to hold this role within the company. That same year, Copeland was named one of Time Magazine’s “Most Influential People in the World.” 

In addition to starring in prominent roles with ABT, Copeland used her talent to create opportunities for herself outside of the ballet studio.  In 2014, she published her first memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. Her athletic figure landed her contracts with major brands like Under Armour and Dannon Oikos, along with a beauty deal with Estée Lauder. Her Under Armour commercial received 4 million views on YouTube within a week of its release. She also made an appearance in Prince’s video for “Clemson and Clover,” performed at Madison Square Garden, and toured throughout Europe with the late artist.  

Copeland credits the journey, work, and accomplishments of black dance pioneers such as her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, as her motivation to push through any obstacles thrown at her. Wilkinson, one of the first black women to dance for a major ballet company, often shared stories of how she was separated from fellow company members and had to stay in “colored only” hotels while touring in the South. Wilkinson was also the inspiration behind Misty Copeland’s children’s book Firebird.

While Misty Copeland acknowledges that her accomplishments thus far will not eliminate all discrimination or race problems within the ballet industry, she hopes to serve as a role model for young ballerinas who are considering entering the classical ballet world. As she states in her memoir, she sees her platform and influence as, “…an opportunity for these little brown girls and boys to be able to look at me and see themselves and see a future for themselves in a space where they’re not really celebrated.”