MISTY COPELAND: Prima Ballerina

Misty Copeland shares her story with a special meet-n-greet, that delved deeper than ballet slippers and tutus.

Words: Marjua Estevez

There she was a black swan in glowing white and with a final grand jeté, she’d won the entire audience over. But that was just the film, the prequel of what was to come. The San Pedro, California bred, Misty Copeland, one of three female African-American soloists at the American Ballet Theatre and the first one in almost 20 years, would be appearing shortly. Those in attendance seemed to be true fans already, waiting patiently for her to grace them with her presence in spite of her age or the fact that she’s only been dancing professionally for about four or five years. Under their breaths they chatted and whispered about her greatness until finally the air became still and the room quieted as the new Ballet goddess silently walked in.

At the Apple store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, she sits across from tonight’s moderator, USA Today reporter Charisse Jones. Full of poise, Misty settles herself and gracefully begins to speak. She’s doesn’t come off as strong as one would anticipate, but like most dancers, especially the great ones, the stage is where they best express themselves, using their bodies as instruments and means of communication. She seems a little timid at the moment, though much melody can be found in the way she speaks, how she glances at her audience and addresses everyone with direct eye contact. It’s almost as if she too is waiting for something grand to reveal itself, as we were just a few moments ago, as if she has no connection to who she has become in recent months.

“I didn’t find Ballet… I like to think it found me,” she smirks. “I began a little later than most dancers, actually. I was 13 when my teacher noticed my [athletic] physique and the natural rhythm I carried.” Continuing to describe her foray into dance, Misty explains how 13 is considered an “advanced age” (read too old) to begin such a traditional art form. Most start much sooner, age seven being the most appropriate age for such training, as it allows the body enough time to mold itself before it begins its natural process of development. According to Misty, she was one of the lucky ones, pulled aside by her teacher who suggested that she seriously pursue dance.

While ballet requires a certain reservoir of elegance and gracefulness that is far from being coarse, Misty, who moonlights as a motivational speaker and an advocate for the Boys & Girls Club when she’s not dancing, is also a fighter. Her ferocity is made visible when she shoots straight from the hip. “A dancer’s career is extremely short. You have to take all the opportunities that come to you. You have to go hard and start early. I had impeccable training. And if you’re serious about dancing, find impeccable training too, even if it means leaving wherever you’re from.”

Like Katherine Dunham, who became a prima ballerina of the Chicago Opera in 1930, at age 21, Misty was also honored with the special rank here in New York, a notable title that is given only to the best of female ballet soloists within a company. And while Dunham launched Ballet Nègres, the first Black ballet company in the USA and maintained the “only permanent, self-financed African-American dance troupe” for over 30 years as a direct response to the lack of opportunities afforded to Black dancers of her time, Misty didn’t see her Blackness as a factor early on. It wasn’t until she arrived at the American Ballet Theatre that she noticed that she was “different” from others, and where, ironically, because of her wealth of talent, she became the company’s first leading Black female soloist ever.

“I have stepped into the position of feeling like a role model,” she says. “I’ve been happy to fall into this position and share my story. I know many people can relate. And I don’t feel like just because I’m Black, I need to be a role model just for Black people. We have to work towards not seeing color.” And while it is true that her body was always much curvier and more solid than most traditional ballerinas (Misty is equipped with chiseled calves and ripped thighs, a round bottom, jutting shoulders and perfect arms), Misty urged, using her accomplishments as grounding for a refreshed view of ballet and its dancers: “We have to work towards not having a need for a separate company or school that welcomes Black people or people of different shapes.”

Over the years Misty has performed at the Apollo, as a special guest in the Black Nutcracker and has even collaborated with Prince on tour, the latter she praised for helping her to broaden herself as an artist and her reach to a larger audience). Misty’s words to live by: “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Follow Misty Copeland on Twitter, @MistyOnPointe

For more information on Misty Copeland, visit her site HERE.

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