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Busting Stereotypes To Become A Prima Ballerina

MISTY COPELAND: I'm Misty Copeland and I'm a soloist with American Ballet Theater.


And how many years have you been dancing, Misty?

COPELAND: I have now been dancing for I think it's about 17 or 18 years but professionally for 13.

MARTIN: Misty Copeland had to bust a lot of stereotypes to get where she is today. Copeland is one of only a handful of African-Americans to have ever danced as a soloist with the American Ballet Theater, also known as the ABT. She came to ballet from a different path. She showed up for a class at a Boys and Girls Club wearing old gym clothes. Her family was struggling to make ends meet. And for her, ballet became a stabilizing anchor. In her new memoir, "Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina," Copeland describes her home life before dance changed everything.

COPELAND: My mother was pretty much a single parent, for the most part. I had stepfathers and we kind of moved around a lot. And I think she was just constantly struggling to raise all six of us kids. And at the lowest point, you know, we were kind of going from home to home and living with friends and sleeping on floors. And right around the time that I started taking ballet classes, I was living in a motel with my five other siblings and my mother.

MARTIN: Your first really big break came when your teacher, Cynthia Bradley, who kind of plucked you out of the Boys and Girls Club. She really took you on and wanted to mentor you. What was your relationship like? What was her impact on your life?

COPELAND: She saw talent that she'd never experienced before, as well as just me coming from the background I did and not having the best family situation and home. And I think that she saw that ballet was going to create this amazing life for me. So, Cynthia brought me into her school on a full scholarship and she also brought me into her home.

MARTIN: Things did get contentious. Eventually, there was a big court battle. Your mom felt like Cynthia was trying to take you away from her and she sued to keep you from Cynthia and her husband. Did you, at that time, question who really had your best interests in mind?

COPELAND: I was a child. I was 15 years old, and not a typical 15-year-old, you know. I think I was really underdeveloped as far as just understanding things and being able to really verbally communicate what I was feeling and thinking. So, to experience all of this was extremely traumatic, not only because I was so insecure and so shy, you know, when I wasn't on the stage just in my normal, everyday life. It was just extremely difficult to be caught in the middle of it all.

MARTIN: From your first exposure to ballet, you had known pretty early on that this was a world where you as a mixed-race young woman were going to stand out. Before we talk about that, can you read an excerpt from the book?


MARTIN: This is chapter eight.

COPELAND: (Reading) Picture a ballerina in a tutu and toe shoes. What does she look like? Most would say she is a fragile-limbed pixie with flaxen hair and ivory skin spinning in pale pink tulle. But ballet isn't just about ability or strength. You must also look the part.

MARTIN: And sometimes you didn't look the part.


MARTIN: When did all of that become apparent that you were being shut out of some roles in particular because of your race?

COPELAND: I would say a couple years into my professional career, maybe two or three years into it. Growing up, you know, my race was never something that was brought up as a ballet dancer, which I was happy that I was kind of shielded from that, that it wasn't necessary for a young girl to think about. But when I became a professional, I realized in a company of 80 dancers I was the only black woman.

MARTIN: And it's part of the culture, this idea that these performances, and certain ballets in particular, everyone has to look uniform. If the majority of the people are white, then that means everything has to look white.

COPELAND: Yeah, as a member of the Corda Ballet, which is the largest group of dancers in the company that frame the principal dancers and soloist dancers and create the atmosphere, they, for the most part, throughout ballet's history, you know, the point of them, they're all supposed to look like shadows of each other pretty much, you know, all very similar. That's even how you're kind of selected to be in the company, so that you all complement each other on the stage. And I was the one brown girl up there. And some people just thought that I kind of ruined the aesthetic of the group.

MARTIN: At one point you write in the book you were trying to change the color of your skin by putting makeup on and justifying it to yourself. Like, oh, it's just makeup. It's powder, like everyone else is doing.

COPELAND: Yeah. It's something that so many African-American women before me have experienced in the ballet world. Obviously, more severe than me when, you know, in the '50s. But for me it was very difficult. You know, all of us in certain ballets that are called the white ballets - "Giselle," "Swan Lake," "La Bayadere." When there's a second act and you're supposed to be otherworldly or ghostlike and all the girls have put a powder on their skin just to make it look more matte and not so shiny, but I had to use their powder so that I fit in and looked similar. It was hard after a while to do that and to change the way I looked.

MARTIN: A couple of years ago, you were granted an amazing role. You were asked to dance the role of the Firebird, which is the central role in a famous ballet with music by Stravinsky. You're the first black woman to do it. Can you describe this role, why it meant so much to you?

COPELAND: There have been black women to play the part but not an elite ballet company, not in one of the top major companies. But I felt like at that point, two years ago when I played the role, I had just so much fire inside of me that was building that had to be released somewhere. And it couldn't have been more appropriate to put that all into the role of the firebird.

MARTIN: What do you remember about that performance? Was there a movement, a moment, a feeling?

COPELAND: Yeah, so many. Just that first entrance where you come out and you have to stand apart from all the other firebirds that are on the stage, the flock of firebirds. And the feeling that I experienced when I ran onto the stage and stood still and the applause that erupted was something I'd never experienced. It was just a special moment, not only for me but for so many African-Americans who stepped into the Metropolitan Opera House for the first time to support me.

MARTIN: Misty Copeland. Her new book is called "Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina." She joined us from our studios in New York. Misty, thank you so much for talking with us.

COPELAND: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.