Woman of Influence: Misty Copeland

UPDATED: May 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: August 17, 2020
Woman of Influence: Misty Copeland

As told by Kindra Hall

First African-American principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre

The first ballet class I ever took was on a basketball court.

I was one of six kids. My mother was a single parent and we faced a lot of challenges—moving a lot, changing schools. And while this was the only life I knew, I became an extremely introverted child. I learned to keep my mouth closed to avoid criticism from other kids. I never in my whole life felt like I ever fit in. I never felt like I ever belonged anywhere. 

Those first few ballet classes were no different.

The class was free at the local Boys & Girls Club and designed for kids like me—diverse students who maybe didn’t have the access or the means to be a part of the ballet world otherwise. I remember walking into the gymnasium, onto the basketball court and immediately feeling out of place. There I was, 13 years old, which is ancient in ballet years, being thrust into this class that was so foreign to me, hearing music that I’d never heard before, and having an instructor manipulate my body to put it into different positions. Not to mention I was the only person in the class who wasn’t in a leotard, tights and ballet slippers; I was wearing a T-shirt, shorts and socks.

I remember thinking, “No, this isn’t for me, I don’t fit in. I don’t belong here.”

However, a week or two later, the instructor offered me a full scholarship to train at her school. My mother allowed me to go and my stepfather took me to the local ballet store, Alva’s. I remember putting on the leotard and tights for the first time and they immediately felt like a second skin. They fit. I fit. This is where I belonged. And for the first time in my life, I soared.

And then, years later as a sololist at American Ballet Theatre in New York City, there was the night of the Firebird ballet performance, and everything changed for me.

I’ll never forget that night, a night that almost didn’t happen as I was keeping a pretty severe injury under wraps because I knew if the artistic staff and physical therapists had known the severity of my pain, they wouldn’t have allow me to perform. But my shows were sold out at the Metropolitan Opera House and I knew that more than half of the audience would be black and brown people, which had never happened before at the Met. I knew that many of them were coming for the very first time. As a woman who never felt like she belonged, I knew how important it was that I dance that night. I told myself: “Even if this is the last night that I ever perform on the stage again, it’s going to do something huge for the ballet world, and for my community within the ballet world.”

I remember coming out onto the stage for the first time and, though all I saw was a sea of darkness, I could feel the energy. The audience was cheering for so long and so loud that I couldn’t hear the orchestra. I thought to myself, “Well, I don’t know if I’m on the music or not, but I’m just gonna keep moving and see what happens.” The pride, and love, and energy that I felt from the audience was palpable. I’ve never experienced anything like it since.

That was my first and only show of Firebird during that Met season. The next day I told the artistic staff about my injury, was in surgery sometime later and it took several months for me to recover and return to the stage. But it was more than worth it.

The Firebird performance was the night I realized; this is not even me up here. This is me representing all of the incredible Black women who didn’t get a chance to do what I did. The Black women, in all fields, who paved the way for me to have an opportunity to stand on that stage. I know now my purpose goes beyond ballet—that this child who once kept her mouth closed—can now be the voice to represent so many who may feel like they don’t belong.

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This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo courtesy of Under Armour

Kindra Hall

Kindra Hall is the bestselling author of Stories That Stick and a sought-after keynote speaker. She is the president of Steller Collective, a marketing agency focused on the power of storytelling to overcome communication challenges.