The shape of a dancer... Misty Copeland
She took her first ballet class aged 13 - wearing the wrong clothes. She faced opposition about her race, shape and her hair. And Misty Copeland had to battle her mother and the establishment to make it to the top
Published 29/06/2015 | 02:30
Misty Copeland can pinpoint the precise moment when she realised her success in ballet held a broader significance.
"It was the night I danced The Firebird at the Metropolitan Opera House in June 2012. I had never seen an audience that was 50 per cent African-American. It was overwhelming to know that so many of them were there to support what I stood for."
As only the third black soloist (one rung down from a principal dancer, or prima ballerina) in the history of New York's prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT) - and the first in two decades - Copeland, 32, is elegantly dismantling the barriers of race and class that have long surrounded the art form. "When I talk to [black] families, they tell me, 'We never went to the ballet before. Why would we bring our children when they can't see themselves reflected on the stage?'" she says.
Her profile reaches beyond the rarefied realms of ballet: she has performed with Prince on stage, her recent advert for a sportswear brand has had eight million views, and she has been name-checked as an inspiration by both Barack Obama and Beyoncé. In April, she was named as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. That month, she sparked huge media coverage - and a frenzied rush on the box office - when she and Brooklyn Mack became the first black duo to dance the leading roles of Odile/Odette and Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake for a major ballet company.
But Copeland's prominence and influence is all the more incredible given her wholly untraditional path to the top. As she recounts in her bestselling autobiography, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, which is now being developed into a Hollywood film, she did not begin lessons until the age of 13 - positively geriatric in the dance world. It was after just four years of training that she was taken on by the ABT.
A week before the start of the spring season of performances - in which she will play leading roles in Romeo and Juliet and La Bayadère as well as Swan Lake - I meet Copeland at a hotel on Manhattan's Upper West Side, close to the home she shares with her boyfriend Olu Evans, a lawyer. Much has been made of Copeland's "curvy" body, which in person is anything but. At 5ft 2in, she is tiny, slender and taut, wearing olive-green shorts, a black vest and heels. Her legs, often referred to as unusually muscular, are incredible: strong but lean, as if carved from marble. While her manner is warm, friendly and open, Copeland is also straight-talking, unafraid of tackling difficult topics. She is mixed race, with black, German and Italian heritage, and for the first decade she was with the ABT, was the only African-American woman in the entire company; there are still only two.
Elsewhere in the world, the situation is no better. Scouring the websites of all the major companies, we found just one black British and one British-Asian ballerina, neither of whom are as senior as Copeland; there are, however, many non-white dancers climbing the ranks from China, Japan and South America.
But on the question of whether ballet has historically been racist, Copeland is emphatic. "Yes. I don't think there's any way around it. That's the way it was structured and built," she says. "George Balanchine [the choreographer widely regarded as the father of American ballet] created this image of what a ballerina should be: skin the colour of a peeled apple, with a prepubescent body… So when people think of ballet, that's what they expect to see, and when they see something different, it's 'wrong' ."
Copeland is trying to change that, but feels there is still resistance. "Though I have tremendous support from lots of people, there are so many others waiting to tear me down," she says. "I want to bring awareness to the lack of diversity in ballet, and feel like that's a large part of my purpose. There are people who say that I don't have the body to be a dancer, that my legs are too muscular, that I shouldn't even be wearing a tutu, that I just don't fit in."
Copeland, however, is no stranger to struggle. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, her mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, had herself studied dance before giving it up to become a cheerleader. When Misty was two, her mother and father, Doug Copeland, split up and DelaCerna moved her four children to California. She married and divorced twice more and had two more children, moving the brood from home to home. It was a chaotic and unstable lifestyle, which Copeland says made her anxious and cautious around others.
Escape came through watching videos of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci and emulating Mariah Carey's dance moves. "I was always drawn to performance, music and movement - I was always dancing around at home," she says.
When she was 13, the coach of her school drill team (a form of cheerleading) encouraged her to take a beginner's ballet class at the local Boys & Girls Club. It was not an instant success.
"I hated it," Copeland says. "I never wanted to step outside my comfort zone, and ballet was terrifying. And I was the only one not in a leotard and tights and ballet slippers. I felt like I didn't fit in."
But others - in particular, the ballet teacher Cindy Bradley - could clearly see Copeland's natural gift, and arranged free lessons and clothing. "Once I had the right things to wear and there were mirrors around me and I could see myself, what I was capable of, that was so exciting. It was something I'd never experienced before."
But at the time her family was living in a single motel room a two-hour bus ride from the ballet school, and DelaCerna decided her daughter's lessons had to end. Her teacher was reluctant to let her promising new pupil go, so Copeland moved in with Bradley, her husband and their young son.
Copeland blossomed in the new environment. "My mother's focus was on all the other children and working to provide for us, and this was the first time I'd been in an environment where all of this love and nurturing was focused on me," she recalls. "I felt I grew so rapidly." But her mother resented what she saw as the Bradleys' "snobbishness", feeling that Cindy looked down on her. And when at 15 Misty applied for emancipation - a common practice among young performers, giving them adult rights and control over their burgeoning careers - her mother hired the high-profile lawyer Gloria Allred to fight it, forcing Copeland to return home.
"Ballet had become my identity, and to feel that it was being snatched away was very traumatising," she says. "I had a lot of resentment towards my mother in the beginning, and I couldn't talk about that period of my life for years."
In spite of her turbulent teenage years, Copeland still managed the incredible achievement of being accepted into the ABT at 17, and the following year moved to New York to join the company.
At that point, she still hadn't been through puberty, which isn't uncommon among ballet dancers because of their low levels of body fat. Her doctor, however, was concerned that her low oestrogen levels might lead to weak bones and therefore injuries, so she went on the contraceptive pill to force her into puberty.
"I gained 10lb in two months," she says. "My body completely changed. It was a big struggle for me and I lost so much of my confidence."
She was told by instructors at the ballet company that she needed to "lengthen" - a ballet euphemism for losing weight - but rebelled.
"I thought, 'They just don't like who I am, so I'm going to eat whatever I want.'" After dance practice, she would order two dozen doughnuts and eat the lot, alone in her apartment. "In the end, I just did myself harm. I wasn't in the shape that I needed to be in to be a ballerina."
She credits her boyfriend Evans, who she met when she was 21, with helping her to regain her confidence and take better care of herself. "He made me feel like [my body] is my instrument and I have to take care of it," she says. She no longer eats meat, but isn't strict about her diet. "I don't eat a ton of pasta or bread," she says. "But I eat dessert almost every night, and I drink. You need a bit of balance, and I've found mine."
Of course, her energy output is huge: five days a week, she has a 90-minute dance class in the morning, then seven hours of rehearsals in the afternoon.
The day after our interview, I sit in on a rehearsal. When Copeland and Joseph Gorak, the Romeo to her Juliet, perform a love scene full of complex and vigorous lifts, twists and spins, I feel as though I am intruding on something incredibly intimate.
There is every chance that Copeland will become the first black principal with ABT, but her ambitions extend beyond even that. She mentors young members of ABT, and works with the company's Project Plié, which aims to increase ethnic and racial diversity in ballet.
"It's not just a case of helping young people to believe that ballet is open to them," she says. "It's also about getting organisations to understand how to work with different communities. Even something as simple as hair is an issue. People will say, 'We shouldn't cast her because she probably can't get her hair in a classical 'do.' "
It's a busy schedule. She and Evans have to book time together in their diaries months in advance - which is perhaps the reason why she's scaled down her desire for lots of children. "Not any more," she laughs. "Maybe two. I'm trying to think about timings of that with my boyfriend. I'm very regimented and organised - [he] understands that. And there will be plenty of time after [I retire]." But for now, she's happy. "Everything I'm doing is everything I've ever wanted."
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