She couldn’t help but stand out. Not only was she nearly twice the age of everyone in the class, but her gym shorts and t-shirt couldn’t compare to the perfectly fitted leotards and tutus worn by everyone else. She was dressed so differently and unlike a ballerina like the rest of the girls. To top it all off, her bad nerves, constant worrying and anxiety attacks made it even worse. There was no way she’d ever be able to fit in. But somehow, as if she was born for ballet, 13 year old Misty Copeland moved with magical grace from first position to second to third to fourth to fifth position with a level of precision expected from students that have practiced the art for many years. It was there, at the Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro California, that Copeland, in her loose fitting clothes, began a journey that is as much about community as it is destiny.
In fact, community is the very reason 32 year old Misty Copeland started dancing. After first dancing at the Boys & Girls Club, the teacher, Cindy Bradley noticed Copeland’s special ability to memorize choreography. Fully invested in this young girl’s potential, se offered Copeland a full scholarship to her dance school. At the school, Copeland continued to excel, even after being placed in advanced classes. Eventually, Copeland would move in with Bradley and her family, as she continued to study dance and perform locally. Acquiring a lot of attention, Copeland was eventually asked to perform the role of Clare in Debbie Allen’s readaptation of The Nutcracker. Dancing with an unrivaled level of skill and grace, Copeland’s career really took off after this performance, resulting in her being accepted at The American Ballet Theatre at 17 years old, just 4 years from when she first began dancing.
Despite the elegant grace Copeland exudes on stage, she was very closed off as a young child. “Before dance…I just never felt a real connection to anything or anyone. And I was constantly just trying to fit in. I didn’t want to be the best at anything. I just wanted wanted to blend in,” she told Al Jazeera America. Born in Kansas City, Missouri Copeland was one of four children, eventually becoming one of six after her mother’s third and fourth marriages. After her parents separated when she was two years old, Copeland’s life became really unstable as they moved from place to place, eventually ending up homeless at a Sunset Inn motel. Through it all though, music and dance helped Copeland endure the hard times. “Whenever there was chaos in my house,” she told CBS News, “Whether it was arguing, being in a cramped space with all of us kids and screaming, I found an empty space where I could just put music on and move.” While emotionally helping her escape a complicated childhood, dance also provided Copeland with a new community of teachers, mentors, godparents and the like.
As Copeland grew older, this community became vital to her success. As the only black dancer in her company, Copeland faced a lot of racism internally as well as externally. Not only was she criticized for not having a “ballerina’s body” (she was said to have too much muscle, curves and bust). Additionally, she often suffered from isolation as some of those that danced beside her felt she did not belong. Issues such as body image and weight plagued her thoughts, almost causing her to quit dancing despite her 5 feet, 2 inch frame weighing 112 pounds. It was her community that pushed her onward. Her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina illustrates the positive effect this community had on Copeland’s journey. “You’re going to dance in front of kings and queens,” Cindy Bradley, her first coach told her. “You will have a life most people cannot even imagine.” As if Bradley were some of kind of prophet, that is exactly what Copeland has done. Not only has she danced with music legend Prince during his Welcome 2 America Tour, but just this month, Copeland made history by becoming the very first African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater.
Tears of joy marked her face as Copeland was told to take a bow during rehearsal when the announcement was made. But the beauty of Misty’s elegant dancing and history making is inevitably tied to a supportive community. With every elongated stretch of her hand, she reaches out toward the future dancers, encouraging to follow their dreams. With every flawless jump she reminds us all to rise above criticism and challenges. With every mesmerizing turn, she encourages us to never stop moving forward, onward. Whether watching Copeland’s uplifting advertisement for Under Armour or her monumental performances at “The Firebird,” Copeland’s heart is laid bare on the stage, her dream made tangible with each high powered yet poised move she makes. But she’s quick to admit that all she has accomplished is not just her dream; it’s a community’s dream, a people’s dream. After all, “this is for the little brown girls” she writes over and over in her memoir.
If you’ve never watched Copeland dance “The Firebird,” you should. The firebird, just like the phoenix, soars into the sky despite having been captured, and almost killed. The power with which Copeland dances the play is amazing. In so many ways, The Firebird, though written centuries before her birth, is her story. What’s so amazing about Misty Copeland is that she was unexpected yet uniquely gifted. She faced harsh challenges yet overcame. She came from a fractured home yet built an unbreakable community. What she has accomplished personally and professionally, affects us communally. Admitting that she still worries far more than she should, Copeland ends her memoir reminding each and everyone one of us that we can “start late, look different, be uncertain and still succeed.” If her words could be transposed into song, I imagine they’d read something like Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.”
I hope that when we all get the chance to sit it out or dance, I hope we dance, like Misty Copeland does: powerful, yet gracefully.