“One day, you will tell your story,” Misty Copeland’s first ballet teacher told her shortly after a 13-year-old Copeland — gawky, living in a motel room with her mother and five siblings, and never having heard a piece of classical music in her life —waltzed into her first class at the local Boys and Girls Club near her home in San Pedro, California.
But, Copeland — now a soloist at New York City’s American Ballet Theatre and one of the few black ballerinas dancing in a major company — didn’t expect to tell it so soon. “I always thought it would happen when I was retired or something,” says the 32 year-old about writing her memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” which has just come out in paperback. “But when Megan [Reid, her editor at Simon and Schuster] approached me, she was like, ‘This doesn’t have to be the end. You can write a memoir to a teenage audience if you want,’ and that’s how I did it.”
And though she’s used to performing in front of large crowds — as a soloist at ABT, on tour with Prince — her newfound fame has taken her aback. “When I started doing book events, it was like ‘Wow, this is a real thing. People have actually read this.’ It’s still strange: People will come up to me on the street because they recognize me from my book cover, if I’m with my boyfriend, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re Olu!’”
Yet, Copeland hasn’t shirked the spotlight either. Indeed, she’s made it her mission to introduce ballet to as many people as possible — especially minorities. “It was really hard when I was first dancing at ABT, and I would look around and wonder why there wasn’t anybody who looked like me,” says Copeland, who now mentors young minorities through programs like the Boys and Girls Club and ABT’s Project Plié. She’s also embraced pop culture, guest-judging on So You Think You Can Dance, collaborating with Prince, and leaping, pirouetting, and showing off her muscular physique in an Under Armour ad campaign that went viral this past summer.
This activism — and the fact that Copeland is a passionate, elegant, artistic, surprising and technically dazzling performer — has made her the ballet world’s biggest breakout star since Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“Ballet should be shared and open to everyone,” says Copeland. “I feel like the ballet world also wants to keep it this very private society. But, if you want more people to buy tickets, then you have to put yourself out there and go outside.”
Copeland’s Top Three Moments
Prince’s Welcome 2 America Tour, 2011
Copeland has collaborated with Prince multiple times, first in his video for “Crimson and Clover” and later joining the Purple One on stage during his massive stadium Welcome 2 America tour. “I was performing for an audience that didn’t know me and didn’t know ballet, and it was my responsibility to represent this art form to a new crowd. It was a huge turning point for me — helping me find myself as a performer and individual and adult. He really gave me confidence.”
Firebird, ABT, 2012
In 2012, Copeland became the first black ballerina in a major company to perform the lead role in Stravinsky’s seminal “Firebird.” “This was the first time I’d been given the opportunity at ABT to take on a principal role in a classical ballet,” says Copeland. “It’s so common for black dancers to get cast in more modern or contemporary dances, but as a ballerina, you’re trained to do these classical roles. This was the start of proving that I have what it takes to carry a classical ballet.”
Swan Lake, Washington Ballet, 2015
In November, the Washington Ballet announced Copeland would be playing the role of Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” in April — a huge breakthrough for an African-American performer in this typically all-white production. “I never, ever thought in my professional career I would ever perform the lead in “Swan Lake” says Copeland. “It’s a dream come true.”