Black Excellence Series: Celebrating Misty Copeland

You may not have seen her face, heard her name, or watched her glide across a stage, but Misty Copeland is making big moves in the realm of American dance culture – unprecedented ones, in fact. Copeland, born in Kansas City, Missouri, started ballet at the age of 13, far later than most professionals who basically begin right out of the womb. Merely 6 years later, at the age of 19, Copeland began dancing with the American Ballet Theatre and eventually became its first ever Black principal ballerina.

Very early in her life, Copeland moved to California, and lived in various cities throughout her childhood, including San Pedro, Gardena, Los Angeles and Bellflower. Here she would face many adversities that punctuated her childhood: by the age of 12, she, her mother and siblings took up residence in the Sunny Inn motel after her mother’s failed relationships.

Effectively homeless at the beginning of her teenage years, Copeland still attended school and joined its drill team. The coach suggested she take up ballet, and the rest is history. Slipping on her first pair of ballet shoes at 13-years-old – when most professionals would have done so by age 5 – Copeland was declared a prodigy, knowing the dance floor like it was a part of her own body. Sadly, two years later, more hardship found her when her ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and mother had a custody battle over her – at this time, Bradley was her official guardian. Copeland had also filed for emancipation from her mother, left school and ran away from her home, until being returned by the police.

With all this hardship and controversy on her back, it is astounding to see Copeland’s fantastical and fast-paced rise to success. Having re-enrolled in school and completed more intensive training throughout her adolescence, she became an official member of the American Ballet Theatre’s corps at 19, in September of 2001. By August 2007, she was a soloist, and in June 2015, Copeland became the ABT’s first ever Black American principal ballerina. This made history not only for the company in its 75 years, but for Black people worldwide, and children especially, who felt inspired and empowered by her journey.

I, for one, am one of those people! I only began dancing ballet with a studio in September 2019, but instantly fell in love with it. I have always loved dance and gymnastics, but never got into them formally, always dancing on my own or during workouts. One night last summer, as I was scrolling through Tumblr (because I’m that old school), I came across an account that showcased racialized ballet dancers, men and women alike, looking simultaneously graceful and powerful. This kind of representation really stirred me, moving me to want to be just like them and do what they do. In a matter of months, I ditched my long-felt anxieties and was at the bar, studying dance for the first time in my life.

“This is for the little brown girls,” Copeland says repeatedly in her memoir Life in Motion. I thought of Copeland, then, as I stood at the bar. I thought of Nardia Boodoo, Naazir and Shaakir Muhammad, Monike Cristina, Black dancers, dancers around the world. This Black History Month, I’m honouring Misty Copeland who, among all these other beautiful people, inspired me to take a risk and dive – or ciseaux – into what I love.  Copeland isn’t the first Black girl to ever slip on ballet shoes or dance en pointe, but she is one showing there are tremendous gains to be made on the dance floor – a life you can craft out of it, and a life that it invigorates out of you, even if your skin is darker or hair curlier than the rest of those in your class.