Misty Copeland is the first African-American Principal at the American Ballet Theatre. In a candid interview, she shares her thoughts on ballerina stereotypes and her zero-tolerance attitude to Photoshop.
By Tamara Abraham
“I didn’t know what ballet was, I had never heard classical music,” says Misty Copeland of her introduction to ballet at the (relatively late) age of 13. “I went in with my socks on and my PE clothes and was on a basketball court. That’s where I took my first ballet class.”
Today, Copeland, now 35, is a household name as the first African-American to become principal at the American Ballet Theatre. She has been an ambassador for Under Armour, T-Mobile, Seiko and Coach, collaborated with Prince on a music video and is the author of three books, the most recent being Ballerina Body.
In an intimate interview with Dannijo co-founder Danielle Snyder at Soho House New York in January, Copeland spoke candidly about her childhood in San Pedro, California. One of six children to a single mother, she was painfully shy. “A lot of my classmates thought I was mute – I was just terrified to speak out,” she revealed. Copeland and her siblings would spend their evenings at the local Boys & Girls Club of America chapter near their school while they waited for their mother to finish work, and it was there that she took her first ballet class on the aforementioned basketball court. The teacher, who owned a local ballet school, immediately recognised Copeland’s raw talent and awarded her a full scholarship.
For the young dancer, ballet was transformative. “As a young girl, I was too short, I was too skinny, my feet were huge, I had this little peanut head, I was not considered beautiful, and then I step into the ballet studio and it was like all of these things that people think were odd or ugly were beautiful in ballet,” Copeland explained. “It just made me feel confident, I feel like it made me articulate, it made me feel powerful.”
But Copeland did not fit the ballerina stereotype, something that hit home when she moved to New York at 17 to dance professionally with the American Ballet Theatre. “I was kind of out here on my own… really realizing when I stepped into ABT, oh, I’m the only black woman here. And that went on for a decade,” she said.
As Copeland struggled to connect with her fellow dancers, and even with ballet itself, she was also introduced to a fresh set of challenges: learning to sustain a positive body image while going through puberty in the spotlight. “[I had] no idea how to take care of my body as an athlete, [while] being told to lose weight [and] going through puberty in the public eye.”
It is this journey that forms the basis for Copeland’s latest book, Ballerina Body. “Since I started dancing I’ve been asked: what do you eat? Do you eat? Do dancers eat?” she said. “I don’t believe in diets, I never have… I wanted to show that I’m an athlete and that I work my butt off to look this way, but it’s been a journey. I wanted this to be about everyone discovering their own version of a ballerina body, which is a healthy body to me. Which is so different from how society views a ballerina’s body. Most people think of this thin, anorexic, white woman with blonde hair. And I wanted to show them that this is a ballerina too.”
It’s a message that made headlines last year when photographer Gregg Delman was accused of digitally altering Copeland’s waist to look smaller (it was later confirmed that Delman had only used editing software to remove wrinkles from Copeland’s leotard). “I’m so open about my body, having a healthy body image and eating healthy and you don’t have to be stick thin, so it was a little upsetting,” she recalled. “People just assumed that I would allow someone to Photoshop my waist smaller or something, so I was like no, I’m going to take a stance, I would never allow that to happen.”
In fact, Copeland maintains a strict policy when it comes to photoshoots: “When I work on photoshoots and commercials and I have makeup artists, I’m like, don’t touch my nose, I’m happy to look like a black woman, I don’t want it to look thinner, I don’t want you to lighten my skin,” she said. “I think it’s so important to just embrace who you are, and that it’s so beautiful to just be an individual.”
Copeland also spoke about the devastating injury six years ago that nearly ended her career. “I had six stress fractures to my tibia and I ended up having a plate put in, and I was told I would never dance again,” she said. “I was 29, which is very old for a ballerina, I’m 35 now, but at 29 I was still a soloist… I don’t know how I was so mentally strong to just persevere, [but] there was just something that made me feel like no, I’m going to be a principal dancer.” Copeland’s determination was rewarded in June 2015, when she was finally made Principal, the first African-American to hold the position in the American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history.
Now her influence is set to broaden further thanks to her role in the upcoming Disney movie The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, alongside Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman. In addition to performing in the movie, due for release in November 2018, Copeland was charged with choosing the choreographer and her fellow dancers too. “They kind of carved out this part of the movie to showcase dance, so all of the main characters are sitting in a theatre setting and I perform for them,” she said. “It’s just amazing to be a brown ballerina representing ballet through Disney.”
Certainly, like every project Copeland undertakes, the movie role will help underscore her message of embracing one’s individuality. “With the dancers and young people that I mentor [through] the Boys & Girls Club of America [and] at public schools all over the United States, something that I just continue to say is: embrace your individuality,” she said. “To me that’s so much more special, so much more beautiful, than looking exactly like everyone else around you. Discover what it is that makes you different and special - there’s so much beauty in that.”