At the end of her autobiography, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina , Misty Copeland writes that, for all her accomplishments, she still had a major unmet goal: to be principal dancer with the venerable American Ballet Theatre (ABT). A year later, in June 2015, she checked that off her to-do list, becoming the first black woman to be named a principal in the New York City-based company’s 75-year history.
While that is the pinnacle of the year’s accomplishments for 33-year-old Copeland, it’s far from the only one. In April she was the first dancer in more than 20 years to be featured on the cover of Time, as one of the magazine’s “100 most influential people.” As the cover person, she joined the ranks of superstar dancers Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland.
And she was the subject of Nelson George’s documentary A Ballerina’s Tale. The documentary sets her career accomplishments against the backdrop of the issues of race and body image she fought to break through stereotypes in a traditional-to-hidebound art form. Cultural historian Brenda Dixon Gottschild called ballet “one of the last bastions of white supremacy” in the film.
Copeland’s success is all the more remarkable given the hardscrabble life from which she was able to leap.
Growing up in a family with six children, Copeland last saw her biological father at age 2 and didn’t see him again until she was 22. Their relationship remains a work in progress. Her mother was married several times. Among her mother’s husbands were one who was kind and loving to the children but an alcoholic and another who provided financial stability but was angry, cruel and racist. Packing and running when her mother decided it was time to leave was a fact of life for Copeland. During one sad period, she and her siblings and mother lived in a run-down motel in Gardena, Calif.
Copeland was a shy, anxious child. She suffered migraines. She was a perfectionist. And for her, dance was not only a natural form of expression, it was an escape. She often retreated from family chaos to her room to listen to music and dance. “My worries would dissolve with the dance, and there was no crisis that a Mariah Carey song couldn’t cure,” she writes in Life in Motion.
While most accomplished ballerinas start studying practically as soon as they can walk, Copeland was not introduced to ballet until age 13, and even then she was too intimidated to do anything but watch the class at first. But once she started participating, her teacher at the San Pedro (Calif.) Boys & Girls Club—followed by an increasingly wider audience—recognized her talent.
“I want everyone to feel that they could be part of my world, if they want to be.”
At 15, she placed first in the prestigious Spotlight Awards for Southern California high school students. (In a YouTube video of that performance, Copeland is all long legs and arms and personality in her selection from Don Quixote.) “She had what you can’t teach and you can’t learn, which is stage presence,” Copeland mentor and writer/producer/ABT board member Susan Fales-Hill says in A Ballerina’s Tale.
After she won the Spotlight contest, prestigious dance companies such as ABT and the San Francisco Ballet recruited Copeland for their summer programs, where the grooming for serious ballet careers begins in earnest—although the New York City Ballet, considered by many to be second only to ABT in prestige, snubbed Copeland. Cindy Bradley, Copeland’s teacher and mentor at the time, firmly believed it was due to her color.
But even as her star rose, Copeland’s private life remained complicated and painful. She moved out of the motel and in with the Bradley family to focus on her career and the business of being a teenager. Then Copeland became embroiled in an ugly, high-profile lawsuit after she filed for emancipation from her mother, who supported her dance career but resented the Bradleys’ intrusion. Copeland ultimately moved back with her family and lost contact with Bradley for many years.
Through it all, Copeland danced. She danced through a summer program with the San Francisco Ballet and her first taste of freedom. Through completing high school. Through the stress of being the lone black woman in a company of 80 when she joined the ABT.
She danced through near-crippling self-doubt and body-image anxiety, because she is tiny—5-foot-2—but bustier and more muscular than is usual for ballerinas. And injury: In 2012, at the cusp of career breakthrough and at the age of 29, her groundbreaking turn as The Firebird in Stravinsky’s eponymous ballet was cut short because of painful stress fractures that required surgery and sidelined her for almost a year.
In 2014 she danced for an Under Armour commercial that juxtaposed her powerful muscles with her elegant grace. It quickly went viral, and a second commercial was released in August 2015. She danced for a Prince music video and onstage with him in concert. She danced in On the Town on Broadway, and her two weeks with the production—shortly after being named principal dancer with ABT—helped box office returns for the floundering show jump 130 percent.
Copeland has broken not only the color barrier, but also barriers against ballerinas who look like women rather than nymphs. And she wears the mantle of groundbreaker conscientiously. “This is for the little brown girls,” she writes in a passage about recovering from injury in her autobiography. In 2014 she published a children’s book, Firebird , as inspiration for young ballet dancers who fear their dream is out of reach. The seeds of her blossoming career were planted in the Boys & Girls Clubs, and Copeland remains loyal; she has served as an ambassador for the organization, is a member of its Alumni Hall of Fame and works with chapters in the New York City area. She also helped found Project Plié, an ABT initiative to help ballet become more ethnically and racially diverse, and is writing Ballerina Body, a 2017 book that will include advice for healthful eating and exercise.
“There are many within the ballet world who do not approve of my mainstream appeal or my passion to bring ballet to the masses and especially to underprivileged children…” she writes in Life in Motion. “I get criticized for ‘letting people in.’ It’s almost as if ballet is this exclusive secret society that’s terrified of change, even as it constantly looks for a way to stay relevant and alive. But I want everyone to feel that they could be part of my world, if they want to be.”
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This article appears in the February 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.