We met Misty Copeland recently after one of her rehearsals in Manhattan. She is a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. That means that she dances the leads in some of the ballets they perform. She was the first African-American principal ballerina for the American Ballet Theatre. Before that she was also a dancer for the singer Prince.
If you were given a time clock to go back in time, would this still be something that you would choose?
Yes, absolutely. I didn’t start dancing until I was 13 which is considered late. That is old to start dancing. People would ask me what I wanted to do before I discovered ballet, I had nothing that I felt passionate about. Ballet has been the only thing that has captured me and made me into the person who I am. It is hard work, and it builds your character, and I would do it over and over again.
How did you choose your mentor Cindy Bradley? Did she recognize your talents right away or did it take time?
Cindy is my first ballet teacher. I didn’t know her before she discovered me. I liked to dance even before ballet, but I liked to watch music videos on TV and mimic what they were doing. I auditioned for the drill team and made captain, and my coach said that I had a lot of talent, and she said to me that she thought I should take a ballet class. I was like, ballet? I don’t know what that is. I liked dancing to Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson. I had never heard classical music before that. There was a free ballet class at the Boys and Girls Club where I was in California. It was being taught on the basketball court in the gym. Cindy was teaching the class, and she says that she touched my foot, and she knew that I was going to be a dancer. But what she did was take me under her wing. I didn’t even know what it meant to have a mentor. When she invited me to live with her so I could study more intensely, it was just like having a second mom. It was pretty amazing.
When you are on stage, what do you want people to see when you are performing?
I don’t know if this is the best answer because there is a lot of story behind it, but for the most part, I want people who come to the theater to be happy, and I want them to be entertained. I want them to be able to let go of whatever stresses they have in their lives. I want them to feel joy or sadness, whatever the emotion is that we are letting you have and express. I want to become the character and not be Misty on the stage. I want people to believe that I am a fairy or Juliet, or whatever it is I am playing.
What advice would you give to a young dancer?
I would say do it because you want to do it. I think there is always a little bit of give. You may enjoy it, but you don’t always want to work hard, so you need a push from your parents or your teacher. I think that is OK, but if it is something you absolutely do not feel connected to, it is so much hard work, it is just going to be torture, I think to put yourself through for something that you don’t feel passionate about. . . . I would say working hard is the one thing — whether it is dancing or something else — there is no way around putting in the work and staying focused. And it is important for those people who are in your life to be supportive for you. You have to allow that. I know for someone your age you feel it is something you can do on your own, but there are just times when you are exhausted and you need someone there who can push you along.
How did you feel when Prince died?
That is a hard one. I am 35 now, and I met Prince when I was 26. He became like a mentor to me. I worked with him for seven or eight years. We really built an incredible friendship and partnership when we were on the stage. When I got on stage with him, I had never experienced an artist like him. He was so invested and committed to what he was doing. He challenged me and made me feel it was OK not be like everyone else. It was really difficult when he passed away because it was so unexpected. I am happy that he got to see my career develop the way that it did. I was happy for him to see that I became a principal dancer because it was a dream of his as well as mine. It is still hard, but I don’t think he will leave any of us in terms of music.
While you are performing, do you think people are uncomfortable with your skin color?
I think there are people out there. If you don’t know much about the classical ballet world, it is something that has always been a part of it. It was created in Europe and Italy. We have always been shown that in order to be a ballerina you have to have white skin. I think that is something that is ingrained in how we think of ballerinas. I was the only black woman in the company for 10 years, and there are 80 dancers in the company. And now there are four black women. I think we are doing very well, but it is still a little shocking for people who expect to see a certain thing or are more closed-minded. I try not to think about those things when I am out there performing. As much as I would like everyone to come into the audience and let go of their issues, I try to do the same thing on stage and not bring that with me.
If there is one thing you could change about the ballet world, what would that be?
Ballet is all about history and tradition, and that is something I love about it. I love being a part of something that has such a rich and deep history and being able to perform the same steps and choreography as . . . in the late 1800s. That is an amazing thing. At the same time, there are some traditions we need to let go of and grow from. We have to be more accepting of different body types and skin color and different parts of the world. I think if we did change that, the ballet world would be even more beautiful and more strong. I think more people would connect with it from different communities and different parts of the world.
Aside from dancing, what other talents do you have?
I don’t know about talents, but I do have things I enjoy doing. I love to cook. I love it so much. It is a stress reliever for me, and my husband thinks it is so weird because I will get home from rehearsing for eight to 10 hours straight, and I have literally been on my feet dancing for that long, and then I get home and I am just like: I just want to cook. And he is like, really? I tell him it helps me. I like to cook, I like to write. I like to travel. I don’t think that is a talent, but I like it. I have four books out now. It is really cool to do something like that and express yourself.
How nervous were you when you performed your first solo on stage?
So this is a funny thing. If I was your age and a teacher called on me to read, that would make me so nervous. That is what gave me anxiety. It is interesting that I became a performer because I didn’t want to stand out in any way when I was your age. I just wanted to hide in my shell and not have the spotlight on me. When I stepped on the stage for the first time, it was the first time I felt at home. I was really comfortable. When you are up there, you can’t see the audience at all. It is literally just a sea of black. It was something as a child that I really liked because I was able to express myself doing something that I liked and no one out there can touch me. Maybe they could boo if they wanted to, but they don’t really do that at the ballet. I never really had nerves, but of course you have anxiousness and anticipation that something could go wrong. I think in those moments I have to step back and breathe and really focus on what I am doing. You have to be so focused and present.
Have you ever had an injury, and was it tough getting back up?
I have had many injuries. Not all of them have happened in the moment. But I have fallen many times. My first performance at the Met this season, I am doing “Giselle” and I am doing my solo and I literally fell on my butt. Those things happen. I think when it does happen the audience is even more on your side because they want to see you succeed. They don’t come to the ballet to see who is going to fall and hurt themselves. I fall a lot. I have had surgery on my left tibia. I have a plate screwed in. I still have pain from that one. I have had six stress fractures and I was out for a year. I had a fracture in my lower back and I was in a back brace for six months. All from dance. Most of it is from jumping. Too much impact.
Have you given much thought to what you will do when you retire from the stage?
I have, but I really just allow things to just happen. If you had asked me this eight years ago, I may have said, “Oh, I will continue to write books, or I will continue to diversify ballet.” Those things have happened. So I will continue to write. I will still be connected to the ballet world in every way that I can. I don’t know if I want to teach. I think I will do something involved with dance.
What is your favorite style of dance to watch?
I love contemporary style of dance. But I think you have to have a classical ballet base in order to do those types of dance. But it is edgy and it is different, and it allows for more stories you don’t see in classical ballet.
How was it to be just the third African-American soloist in the ballet company?
I feel that my purpose is being more than just being a dancer, it is to bring ballet to more people. I think it is to also enrich people on the rich history of African-American dance that has always been a part of ballet that we just don’t know about because it is not taught to us or shared with us. There have been so many black dancers who have come through companies since ballet started, but not all of them have been given the opportunities that I have had. I am the first principal dancer as a black woman in American Ballet Theatre. A lot of big companies like the New York City Ballet or the Royal Company of London or the Paris Opera Ballet or Bolshoi in Russia, there has never been a black woman to make it to the top. I think it is a big responsibility, and it is something I am so proud to take on. I think it is important for me to be here and have a voice so other young people of color can feel like this is a possibility.
Did ballet change your perspective of the world?
Oh, my gosh, yes! I don’t think I had any perspective before ballet. I grew up one of six children, and I just lived in this bubble, and I didn’t really go anywhere outside of my community. Ballet just opened up my mind to so many possibilities. I have been able to travel the world and see places I never imagined I would be able to see.
Barbara Wright’s fifth-grade class, Birchwood Intermediate School, Huntington Station