To be a ballet dancer, you must be a dancer, an athlete, and a performer all at the same time. It is a competitive and complex hierarchy with thousands of dancers funneling to just a small handful at the very top… And that tiny percentage of ballerinas at the pinnacle has looked the same for over 100 years. There is an overwhelming lack of diversity in the professional ballet world, and the prevalent stereotypes persist around who achieves success. But Misty Copeland turned these notions on their head.
When Misty Copeland became American Ballet Theatre’s first Black Principal dancer and ballet’s biggest superstar, she changed what the face of ballet could look like. And of course, Copeland is not only a ballerina, she’s also a New York Times bestselling author, a director of the short film FLOWER, and a recent co-founder (alongside Derek Jeter and Wayne Gretzky) of the athletic wear company Greatness Wins.
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During Copeland’s early years when she first found ballet, she was dealing with instability in her home and was not feeling connected at all to what she was learning in school. “I was missing this idea of consistency and structure and routine that I had never experienced, she says. But with ballet, “I understood it in a way I never understood anything in school, and so I was eager to learn. I was craving going into the studio like ‘What step am I going to learn today?’”
Nearly two decades later, after years of practice and performances, Copeland became the first black woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She had been at the company for 15 years before her promotion which she said in a dancer’s career is completely unheard of: “If you’re not promoted within the first five to seven years, then it most likely is not going to happen for you,” Copeland says. She credits her mentor and the subject of her book “Wind At My Back,” Raven Wilkinson, for helping her block out the noise and advocate for herself and the roles she knew she deserved.
Today, she’s a new mom and is choosing to focus on things other than ballet for the time being — her new line with Greatness Wins, her production company, and lifting up other dancers via the Misty Copeland Foundation. Copeland says all of these things are working towards the same goals that she has on stage, “which is to broaden the audiences of ballet, to diversify it, to have these difficult conversations and move the art form forward. This is my opportunity to kind of step away and take a moment…And that includes what it looks like to be a mother.”
Listen to the episode to hear more about the obstacles Copeland has faced and how she’s overcome them, why she felt an immediate bond with Prince, and what she’s doing to change ballet to make it more accessible to everyone. It’s an episode you don’t want to miss!
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