Exclusive: Misty Copeland Opens Up on Breaking Down Barriers in Ballet

by Janice Littlejohn

As a ballerina, Misty Copeland is a phenomenon. She made history in 2007 as the third African-American female soloist at American Ballet Theatre, and will now be featured as a principal in the ballet classics Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet in June.

But what struck one reporter as amazing about Copeland while on stage during the recent Television Critics Association’s press conference for PBS’ American Masters: American Ballet Theatre at 75, were the dancer’s “killer heels.”

Misty Copeland on panel for American Masters: American Ballet Theatre at 75
(Photo: Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

“I’m 5'2", and I really enjoy feeling tall. I think it helps my posture,” said Copeland, who is featured in the Ric Burns documentary honoring ABT’s 75th anniversary, airing nationally on Friday, May 15th at 9 p.m. (Check local listings.)

While she loves a good pair of pumps, Copeland added, “I’m very aware of my feet and taking care of them. I can’t get pedicures and do things to my feet. We build these calluses and bunions, and it’s our armor, and it’s what protects us when we go on stage,” she said. “It’s what we work years for so that we’re not in pain when we go on stage, [so] we don’t have to think about our feet... Being in high heels is nothing compared to pointe shoes.”

Through intimate rehearsal footage, performances, and interviews with Copeland—as well as other past and present stars of the company—Burns reveals the dramatic transformation of one of the world’s preeminent ballet companies. From its beginnings as a financially-strapped little collective of ballet dancers, over the years American Ballet Theatre has torn down barriers and welcomed choreographers and dancers of every ilk from around the globe.

Misty Copeland at ABT's 75th Anniversary Celebration
(Photo: Andrew Walker / Getty Images)

“From the time I started taking ballet lessons, American Ballet Theatre, they were the videos that I was being shown and taught, about these American dancers that came from different countries…and the choreography that they did, the different ballets, the theatrics of it all,” said the 32-year old ballerina who was considered a prodigy despite not starting ballet until she was 13.

The American Ballet Theatre was the first ballet company Copeland ever saw live—and it quite literally changed her life.

“I saw Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella dance Don Quixote, and I was sold,” she said of the performance staged in Orange County, not far from where she grew up in San Pedro, California. “And I just completely fell in love and felt that if I was going to make it to a top tiered company, being an African-American woman, especially, I thought ABT is definitely the place for me to be.”

Years later, Copeland would get her chance. Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre, talks about the first time he heard about the then 16-year-old dancer.

“She came to my attention before I saw her,” McKenzie stated. “I had a dear friend [Rebecca Wright] who ran our summer intensives at that time, whom I had had my professional career with… and she saw Misty at the Spotlight Awards at the Dorothy Chandler [in Los Angeles]. And she was a judge on that. And she came back, and she just went, ‘I have two words to say to you: Misty Copeland. Remember them.’”

Two years later, Misty Copeland was accepted into the company – the only African-American woman soloist in the company in a decade.

“I don’t think that I was completely aware of how few (African-Americans) there are in top companies within the ballet world. So, if anything, that was probably the biggest shock for me. But it would have been that way in any company that I would have joined,” she said.

She now serves on the advisory panel of ABT’s Project Plié, an initiative to increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet and diversify American ballet companies, and is National Youth of the Year Ambassador for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. She’s also authored two books: her biography, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, and the illustrated children’s book, Firebird.

In 2010, she was hand-picked by Prince to star in his “Crimson and Clover” video, and was a guest artist at his concerts in Nice, France, the Los Angeles Forum, and at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where she resides.

Last year, her public profile got an even bigger boost as guest judge on FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance, and she’s endorsed brands such as Lavazza Coffee, Proactive, BlackBerry, and Payless—although none of these deals have had the same impact as her being the face of Under Armour’s women-centered ad campaign, “I Will What I Want.” Copeland’s commercial for the campaign became a viral hit that summer.

“It definitely turned out to be more than I ever anticipated,” she said. “But the point of it, I think, was to show the beauty and the strength up close and personal that most people don’t have an opportunity to see of a dancer. And, this may sound a little funny, but the men that are interested—I know that I’m in underwear and a bra—they’re looking at it in a respectful way, that we are artists and we are athletes.”

Copeland says the ad has gone beyond spiking the company’s underwear sales. “I’ve seen a change in the audience recently that are coming to see our performances with American Ballet Theatre,” she said. “I think outlets like that are what’s going to kind of reach and speak to the next generation.”

Twenty years from now, she hopes to see an even greater change in ballet. “To see more diversity in every aspect of the art form, to see more diversity on the stage, in the audiences, in the boardrooms, on the artistic staff, and for it to be reaching a younger generation,” she said of what she envisions for the future of the classic dance form.

By then, she’ll have swapped her pointe shoes for more every day footwear – maybe a pair of comfy wedge-heeled sneakers. “I think I will not be dancing anymore,” she said, adding, “You never know. But I will forever be a part of the ballet world. I think I was born to do this, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. And I will be pushing the diversity issue for as long as I live.”

Photo: Rahoul Ghose / PBS

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a journalist, author and film artist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @janicerhoshalle.