Last week, Misty Copeland became American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American principal dancer in its 75-year history. Copeland was promoted from Soloist and has been with the company for 14 years.
Copeland was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1982 and is the youngest of four children from her mother’s second marriage. Her family moved to San Pedro, California where her mother would marry her fourth husband.
Unlike many of her counterparts, she began ballet at the age of 13, which most would consider a late start. Copeland’s natural athleticism caught the attention of one of her drill team coaches, who was also classically trained. The teacher suggested that Copeland take free ballet lessons with Cynthia Bradley at the local Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro.From the beginning, Copeland’s talent surpassed most dancers. It usually takes dancers three years to get “en pointe”—to dance in toe shoes. It took Copeland three months. Extremely impressed by Copeland, Bradley invited her to join the local ballet school—the San Pedro Dance Center.
Unfortunately, Copeland’s living situation was ever changing due to her mother’s various relationships and her family eventually settled in a hotel in Gardena. It was too far to commute to ballet classes so Copeland’s mother told her that she had to give them up. After hearing the news, Bradley and her husband offered to house Copeland during the week in order for her to continue lessons. The living arrangement went on for three years. During this time, Copeland would go on to win a number of competitions and gain notoriety after only a few years.
In 1998, Copeland accepted a full scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet’s summer intensive program. After the program, Copeland’s mother wanted her to return home but Copeland and the Bradleys disagreed—believing that this change would hurt her career which led to a fierce custody battle. Copeland filed for emancipation but was too young which resulted in her running away. Three days later, the police placed her back in her mother’s custody.
Copeland’s emancipation request was withdrawn during a court hearing and the Bradleys agreed not to contact her anymore.
A year later, Copeland was accepted into the American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive program and was later invited to join the studio company. Copeland made the difficult decision to return to California in order to finish her senior year of high school.
At 18, Copeland returned to New York to join ABT and became a member of the Corps de ballet in 2001.
Despite an early injury, Copeland became the third black, female Soloist in ABT’s history at 24.
Early on, Copeland made it clear that she was after one thing: to become the first African-American principal dancer in ABT’s history. The rising star has attracted new and diverse audiences to ballet. She has danced for Prince on tour and is a sponsored athlete for Under Armour. Her memoir, “Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina” and her children’s book, “Firebird” were both released in 2014. She also was on the cover of TIME Magazine this year.