Up close with ballerina Misty Copeland
August 8, 2015
According to the traditional dance world, Misty Copeland faced an uphill battle unlike no other. To begin with, she didn't take her first ballet class until she was 13. Yet, within three months, she was en pointe. Then, when her growth spurt hit, she was told she had the "wrong body" for ballet. However, after years of hard work, becoming comfortable in her own skin and dancing in a style as only she could, she became the third African American female soloist by 2007 — and the first in 20 years — at American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
We caught up with Copeland before her final performances at the Vail International Dance Festival — Friday and Saturday's International Evenings of Dance I and II and Sunday's Balanchine Celebration — to talk about her challenges, her successes and how she became the face of a "new kind of ballet."
Vail Daily: What obstacles did you have to overcome growing up, and how did dancing help you?
Misty Copeland: I had no confidence, no understanding of who I was or what I wanted to be, and I was really underdeveloped in my growth as a person. Ballet was a gateway to a different channel of learning. It's what I needed. Through movement, I learned to communicate, to be empathetic and understanding. Through art was how I learned to develop as a person.
VD: What led you to take your first formal training in ballet age 13?
MC: I decided at 13 that I wanted to audition for my school's dance team. I had no experience prior. I was told by my coach that I should take ballet classes. So I took a free class at the Boys and Girls Club, and the rest is history.
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VD: When you were told you had the wrong body for ballet, and at 13 you were too old for ballet, how did you deal with that?
MC: Well, at 13, I was so unaware of what I was doing and such a natural that I didn't realize that it may be impossible to have a professional career with ABT after four years of training. So my naïveté shielded me. But as an adult, having gone through puberty, it was my mentors that kept me from quitting when I was told I no longer had a body for ballet. I got my body into the best shape it could be in and let my dancing speak for itself: That my body didn't have to look like all of those who came before me or the ones I stood next to.
VD: How did it feel to be the only African American in the American Ballet Theatre, and what did it inspire you to do?
MC: It was scary and lonely. I felt like I didn't belong and that I wouldn't go beyond the corps de ballet. It gave me a sense of identity and responsibility. I wanted to share my experiences so that the ballet world could grow.
VD: What is your message about ballet — now and today — as the "cover girl for new kind of ballet?"
MC: It's such a special art form like no other. I want everyone to feel that they can be a part of it, no matter what they look like. I wouldn't be who I am today without it.
VD: What inspires you?
MC: The youth inspire me: Knowing what's possible for the future of ballet and that it lays in their hands and that those getting into ballet today are so diverse is extremely promising.