By Mia Legg
My initial introduction to the world of ballet ensued back in 1996. I was 5 years old and my homeschooling environment involved any piece of work that opened the door for a love affair with creativity. So I sat watching my first ballet; Hot Wheels gummy snacks in my mouth and my eyes glued to the television. I goggled as the red-lipped grim reaper in that bright, yellow dress taunted Mikhail Baryshnikov to pirouette his way closer to death in the opening scene of Taylor Hackford’s White Nights. I fell hard. The years that followed included hip hop and swing dance performance and sweet swaying winner arm moves in the clubs, which finally led to my first ballet class last year. And the girls raved of Misty in the locker room. My “Misty who?” response brought on glares so intense that I rushed through the subway system and straight home to educate myself.
Watching Misty’s dance videos online quickly clicked on that déjà vu section of my brain: Mikhail Baryshnikov. Her contagious chassés and swift sissonnes. Grand jetés, pirouettes, rond de jambes! A great she is indeed, an ever-blossoming legend. It’s no shock she is the first African-American soloist for the American Ballet Theatre in two decades, has performed on tour with Prince, and is one of the leading classical ballet soloists in America today.
I feel honored for the opportunity to have interviewed Ms. Copeland. Our phone conversation commenced in between her rehearsals for Romeo & Juliet and Swan Lake for the American Ballet Theatre.
Mia Legg: The name of this blog series is WE HAVE A DREAM, TOO: If Women and Girls Ruled the World, since this is going live during the Dr. King Holiday weekend. You have achieved things many could not imagine. What does the legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement mean to you, given what you have become?
Misty Copeland: I feel it shows that it’s so hard to be in a place where all eyes are on you and you’re expected to do these powerful things for your race just because you’re in this position. I think of athletes and celebrities and I’ve always thought just because they have a talent and they happen to be in the spotlight they shouldn’t hold that responsibility to have to really stand for something. But being in this position that I’m in now, I do think that it’s a responsibility when there are so few of us as African Americans to kind of get to that place of success in a positive light. We should take a stance and stand for something and use that platform for positivity. And it’s really difficult. So to know that we’ve had people that have come before us that have put their lives at risk and done all of these things like Dr. King did, it makes you seem so much smaller. This person did an incredibly great thing to make our lives better for the future.
ML: What do you think of the protests happening across America right now?
Misty: It’s scary and at the same time I think that it shows that there’s still humanity left in the world in terms of us pushing for change. And not just kind of sitting back and saying “I don’t want to be a part of it.” There are people in the world that care and as much as there are awful things coming out of this and lives being lost, it’s forcing us to continue on that dialogue that racism still exists. And not to kind of just think we’re in the 21st century and Barack Obama is our president, but know it is still very much alive and needs to be addressed all the time.
ML: What inspired you to become a ballerina?
Misty: There wasn’t really any inspiration because I never knew I wanted to become a ballerina. I was discovered at the age of 13. I had a love for movement even though I had no exposure to dance other than what I saw in music videos, like hip-hop music videos. But I knew that I loved moving. So when I auditioned for the dance team at my public school that’s when the coach said “you’ve got a lot more than just being on this dance team as an extracurricular activity.” So she pushed me into taking a ballet class and then it just kind of blossomed from there and I ended up finding out I was a prodigy. My career came together very quickly. I only trained for four years before I became a professional, so I didn’t have a lot of time to sit back and be inspired before I took my first ballet class. But once I started dancing I was extremely influenced by the American Ballet Theatre, which is the company I dance for now, which is pretty incredible. They were the first company that I ever saw live and a lot of the ballerinas that danced for them throughout their history were an inspiration to me. I think I was definitely drawn to ABT because of the diversity in different nationalities that have come to the company and that they really represent what America is. If I was going to make it in any professional company as a Black woman it definitely would be ABT.
ML: What was the moment when you realized you broke through as a mainstream ballerina?
Misty: I think it was probably getting the opportunity to work with Prince. To be an artist and to be recognized by another artist who is, you know, just something you can’t even put into words, someone that is so far beyond what the normal human being experience is in terms of creativity and originality. That was kind of a moment where I thought wow maybe I do have something more that makes me special. To have people come into my life like Prince who want to help me and who want to be a motivation for me, be a mentor for me and kind of push me to that next level of artistry, I think that was kind of the start of me understanding who I was as an artist and as an individual.
ML: Who are some of your female role models?
Misty: Oh man, so many. You know a lot of them are dancers. Raven Wilkinson is definitely one of them. She was the first Black ballerina to dance with a major ballet company in the 1950s. She experienced things, you know there’s still very much racism in the ballet world, but she experienced things on another level that I definitely would not have experienced to this day just from being a Black woman in the 1950s as well as being a Black ballerina.
Janet Collins who was another African American dancer who was the first to dance with the Metropolitan Opera House. Being able to discover this very rich history of African Americans within the ballet world that’s not really talked about or not really there for us to learn about, to do that research on my own makes me feel like I have a purpose here in the ballet world. There have been people who have done it before me and it’s encouraging.
ML: What advice do you have for aspiring dancers that would make them stand out to dance companies? What worked for you?
Misty: Confidence. Belief in yourself, but still being genuine and open and vulnerable. I think that a lot of, especially young, dancers think that confidence has to be this cockiness as if you know everything. But what makes people and companies and artistic directors and choreographers interested in working with dancers is the ability to kind of let go of everything you think you know and be a blank canvas. And to be able to adapt and to learn, but still have an inner confidence, but never looking like you don’t think you’re capable. Be eager and ready to learn.
ML: In the dancing industry, especially in ballet, there’s huge pressure to remain fit. Orgs like Vogue Italia have created online campaigns to fight against anorexia and bulimia. What do you do to keep your great form, but remain healthy?
Misty: I think it’s all about a lifestyle. I don’t believe in dieting, I don’t believe in having certain moments in your life where you’re healthy and then moments when you’re like, “I’m going to eat whatever I want.” It’s just finding what works for your body and always eating healthy. In moderation, having those things that aren’t so great for you. But I think the more you eat healthy clean foods the more you create them. That as well as exercise because there’s no way around it. My dancing career is pretty extreme when I’m training for up to eight hours, six days a week. So just a combination of all of those things keeps my body in the shape that it’s supposed to be for a ballerina. But I think that what you put into your body is more than half the battle. A lot of people think, “Oh I’m going to eat whatever I want and then go to the gym.” And I’ve definitely been one of those people and it just doesn’t give me the results that I need to have the physique of a ballerina.
ML: What’s your opinion on the state of women and girls in our society today?
Misty: It’s difficult to exist as a woman, especially I think as a powerful woman. You want to stand strong and you want to be considered and equal, but today we’re still fighting to be in that position. All we can do I think, as especially as woman like myself who are being looked at by so many young people, is to remember that it’s important to stand strong and display a positive image for them, to show that it’s possible to be a positive role model and send an example in a positive way and still succeed without having to go the expected route, especially within the African American culture and hip hop culture. That you don’t have to be on a reality show doing horrible things to get attention. That it’s possible to do positive things and I think that’s how we’re going to set an example to be respected as women in the world.
ML: Last year the world lost some wonderful women who impacted our culture, like Maya Angelou. What kind of mark would you like to leave on the world?
Misty: A positive one, a powerful one. Success is not easy and I think everyone should know that hard work and perseverance and being open to giving back are so much more powerful than stepping all over people to get to the top. What is the top? What does that mean? And are you really happy inside getting to that space? I just want to leave a positive memory of setting an example and bringing our youth with us.
ML: If women and girls ruled the world…
Misty: There would be a lot more sensitivity, vulnerability, and empowerment.
ML: What kind of world do you dream of?
Misty: An equal opportunity world.