With her luxurious extensions, racehorse-like musculature and hyper-articulate feet, Misty Copeland has the kind of natural facility most dancers only dream about. But Misty, who was a late bloomer in ballet terms—she didn’t begin studying dance seriously until she was 13—is more than just an awesome body. Since joining ABT II (then called the “Studio Company”) in 2000, she’s been wowing audiences with her magnetic stage presence, natural charm and athletic ability. Now a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, she’s putting her distinctive stamp on both classical and contemporary roles, excelling as the delicate Gulnare in Le Corsaire one night and tearing up Jorma Elo’s gymnastic Glow-Stop the next. She’s even had a taste of the commercial world: Last spring, Prince asked her to be in the music video for his remake of “Crimson and Clover”!
Obviously it’s easy to idolize Misty. And as one of the very few African American ballerinas dancing today, she’s an especially inspiring role model. Here, as she answers your questions (and some of ours), she gives us a peek at her unique path to stardom.
When and why did you first start dancing?
When I was 13, a teacher in my middle school told me that I had the physique of a dancer and that I should consider taking classes. I was curious and decided to go to a local Boys and Girls Club, where Cynthia Bradley, who would become my first serious dance teacher, was giving free classes. So my first ballet class was on a basketball court. I wore socks and gym clothes!
Since you had a late start, was it difficult for you to catch up with your classmates? —Heather Vales, 22, Pinellas Park, FL
It was hard to learn the names of all the steps! I went away to my first ballet summer program when I’d only been dancing for a year and a half, and there were still steps that I didn’t know. I was placed in the highest level because physically I could do things, but it was really embarrassing because often I wouldn’t understand what they were telling me to do.
What advice do you have for other late beginners?
If you know that ballet is truly what you want to do, it’s possible to make up for the lost time. You just have to be that much more focused and dedicated.
Who were your first role models?
When I was growing up, Paloma (Herrera, principal dancer with ABT) was it. She was the first dancer I saw perform live, and I was obsessed. Later, when I came to ABT’s summer program, I finally met her. I was totally starstruck!
Was there a moment when you knew you’d “made it”?
Probably my first time performing on the Metropolitan Opera House stage. I’d just gotten my corps de ballet contract, and the first thing I danced was a Little Swan in Swan Lake. I was terrified—it was the biggest stage I’d ever been on!—but at the same time I was thinking, “Wow, I’m here. I’ve arrived.”
Do you have a pre-performance ritual?
No, and everyone makes fun of me because I don’t! I’m really laid-back. I do my makeup in 15 minutes. If I get there two hours early, I feel like it’s too much time to think about things. I get stressed out.
Was there a point in your career when you felt “stuck”? If so, who or what inspired you to keep moving forward? —Kayla K., 13, Sacramento, CA
There was a period when I was really down on myself, because I desperately wanted to move up through ABT’s ranks, and it wasn’t happening. I didn’t understand how long a process that usually is! But I have a sponsor (a non-dancer mentor and supporter) at ABT, Susan Fales-Hill, and she helped me believe that I would make it eventually. It was nice to hear her words of encouragement, because once you get into a big company, you don’t have people giving you positive feedback all the time.
What leotards are good for dancers who, like you, are bustier?
I would actually love to start my own line of leotards that address that problem someday. But for now, it’s all about leos with really good lining. Halter styles are great, too—they’re surprisingly supportive. And nothing plunging, of course!
What kind of pointe shoes do you wear, and what size? —Angela Kuperstein
I wear Bloch Axioms. They’re a new shoe. I just switched to them a year ago, after years and years wearing Sanshas. And hmm, what size am I? [She checks her shoes]. Apparently I’m a 4.5 X.
What is your proudest career moment?
Being promoted to soloist. I’ll always remember that day: It was almost the end of the Met season, and everyone was exhausted. I was in my dressing room relaxing before a show and I got called into Kevin’s office (Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of ABT)—which is normal. But instead of giving me a correction, he told me he was promoting me. I was in shock! I think I said, “Oh, OK.” It didn’t really hit me until I spoke to my mother and my sponsor.
What’s the story behind the Prince video?
A little while ago, I got a call from one of his people, who asked if it would be OK if he called me. Of course I said yes. The next thing I know, I’m talking to Prince on my cell! He said he’s been a huge fan of mine for years, and that I inspire him to create music. I was totally floored. He asked me to do the video, and soon I was on a plane to L.A. It was quick, in and out, just a day of shooting. Aside from the crew people, it was only Prince and me on the set. He just put on the music and said, “Do whatever you want.” So I improvised. Prince was funny; I kept asking him for advice or if there was anything specific he wanted me to do, and he said, “No, just do what you’re doing!”
What are your career goals? Any more music videos?
[Laughs] You never know, but I don’t think so. As far as my ballet career goes, ABT is definitely where I want to be. I can’t imagine a better environment. And I would love to be a principal dancer—ABT’s first African-American female principal.
Because you’re one of the only African-American classical ballerinas, you symbolize a lot to many people. How does that affect you?
I try my best to be a good role model, to show people that it’s possible to do what I’ve done. If I can inspire even one person, encourage her not to be discouraged because of the color of her skin, that’s fantastic.
What is your favorite ballet step? Your least favorite? —email@example.com
I love grand jetés! They’re so free and fun. I’d say my least favorite is probably fouettés. Turning is definitely something I’ve had to work on strength-wise.
What do you do in your time off?
I’m really into cooking. I’d love to go to culinary school when I’m done dancing. I do a good broiled salmon with sweet potato mash. And unsurprisingly I spend a lot of time with my boyfriend. We love to travel. The Dominican Republic, Greece and Japan are my favorite destinations.
Why do you dance?
I was shy as a child, and I never really expressed myself verbally. Dancing was the first time I felt like I had a voice. It brings me joy—and I can share that joy with other people.
Misty’s Breakout Roles
Swan Lake Pas de Trois
“I think this particular variation, the ‘jumping’ variation, is one of the hardest classical roles I’ve done. It was the first time onstage with ABT that I thought I was going to die! But I was so excited to do it.”
Jorma Elo’s Glow-Stop, with Marcelo Gomes
“This ballet was my first time working with Jorma, and it was an amazing process. And this particular moment, with Marcelo—he’s such a fantastic partner—sort of just happened in rehearsal. We were playing around, and suddenly we were in this crazy position, and Jorma kept it.”
Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite, with Herman Cornejo
“I think this was the first time I did a role where I was playing a character. Kevin McKenzie told me that it was the moment he realized that I had true acting ability—and that I was ready to be promoted to soloist!”
Gulnare in Le Corsaire
“This was the first principal role I ever performed. I love Gulnare because I think that I’m very well suited to both of her variations. I particularly love the big jumps (like this one!). The whole part feels comfortable on my body.”