When Misty Copeland takes the stage this spring as the principal title character in the classic ballet, "Coppelia", her rise to this pinnacle of stardom as a soloist who has danced around the world, seems meteoric in itself. But reading her memoir, "Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina" (Touchstone 2014; $24.99), it becomes even more apparent how this 31-year-old woman has parlayed her natural talent along with an uber intense discipline, passion and focus, into a stellar career.
She came late to ballet—taking her first class in the gymnasium at the Boys and Girls Club of American in San Pedro, Calif. at the age of 13. Within three months or so she had put on toe shoes and went en pointe, a classical ballet technique where a ballet dancer supports all of his or her body weight on the tips of fully extended feet. It’s a feat that often takes 10 years for many dancers to master and can easily cause injury if done too soon.
“I was strong enough to support myself. I had muscles in my legs and calves and never had any injuries—I was always just ready,” said Copeland. “For some reason I understood how to hold myself.”
Copeland’s talent for ballet—something she had no background in—was so noticeable that she was soon giving media interviews. Indeed, Copeland was ready for ballet without totally comprehending what it was. But when she saw her first American Ballet Theatre (ABT) performance when she was 14, she just knew.
“I was blown away,” she recalled. “I was like—that’s what I want to do and this is the company I want to dance with.”
She also exhibited an amazing work ethic. Close to her siblings, she said she had few good friends and so even now, the grueling 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. days of practice five days a week don’t bring a complaint.
That’s why, just a few years after her first ballet lesson, Copeland was heading to New York having won a full scholarship to attend ABT’s Summer Intensive Program and becoming their National Coca Cola Scholar. She also traveled with the main company as they toured China and by the following year became a member of ABT’s prestigious Corps de Ballet. In 2007, Copeland became the first African-American soloist in the last two decades at ABT as well as only the third in the company’s 76 year history.
By doing so, she also had traversed a blue collar life being raised, along with five other siblings, by a strong, determined mother to the rarified air of the small, very elite world of ballet. Since joining, Copeland’s performed throughout the world including Beijing, Trieste, Tokyo and London and has had featured roles in The Firebird, La Bayadere, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake to name just a few. And she was contacted by Prince, who told her he was a great admirer and asked to make a video with her. She, of course, said yes.
Along the way to success, Copeland also has become, without quite realizing it at first, a role model, one of the reasons why she, at the age of 31 and still at the top of her game, has written her memoir.
“I want people to understand that you can be from humble beginnings and still achieve,” she said. “I want to expose more people to ballet and to show how the Boys and Girls Club helped me. I keep hearing stories about how the club has saved people’s lives and given them direction. It’s so important.”
As an ambassador for the B&G Club, Copeland is featured in a national Public Service Announcement (PSA) for Boys & Girls Clubs, alongside some of todays most celebrated actors like Denzel Washington, recording artists such as Jennifer Lopez, sports stars like Shaquille O’Neal and leaders like General Wesley Clark who also are Boys & Girls alums. Besides being on TV stations across the U.S., the PSA can also be seen at bgca.org/newsevents.
ABT’s Project Plié, in partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America, is launching this year to bring ballet to a broad array of children by conducting educational and activity-based master classes in member clubs throughout the country. The classes, conducted by ABT’s educational staff, are designed to identify gifted children and connect them with ABT certified Project Plié Partner teachers and schools in their community. Students who successfully complete one-year of training will be eligible for a full scholarship to ABT’s two-week Young Dancer Summer Workshop in New York.
“We find it very exciting,” said Rose Joiner, Senior Club Director at the Gary John Will Anderson of the Boys and Girls Club of Northwest Indiana who said they will most likely be starting the program this coming September. “Misty’s story is very inspirational and while we haven’t had a lot of people ask about ballet dancing, I think they’ll be interested once a class is available.”
As for Copeland, she said it’s great that ABT and the Boys and Girls club are coming together for Project Plié.
“I feel that I am finally where I should be,” she said, “and I’d like others to find that as well.”