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Juilliard Dance

Published: December 3, 2014
Category: profile

Misy Copeland: Profile in Courage

By Rachel Straus

Thanks to Misty Copeland, gone are the days when a company dancer keeps her thoughts to herself and waits for the person in charge (usually a man) to give her the spotlight. The first Black, American Ballet Theatre soloist in more than two decades, Copeland has been increasingly vocal about two things: the paucity of female black ballerinas, and her wish to be promoted to principal dancer at ABT, the company she joined in 2001.

Her two-fold campaign has ramped up since the March publication of Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. “This is for the little brown girls,” she writes in the prologue. The autobiography describes her late introduction to ballet (age 13), and the custody battle between her first dance teacher and her mother (who had six children). The dispute created a media storm in Los Angeles, where Copeland grew up and where she was pronounced a prodigy after winning a Spotlight Award as the best Californian dancer, just two years after beginning ballet. Luckily, a 1999-2000, summer scholarship to ABT’s training academy gave Copeland needed independence and she joined ABT as a corps member a year later. 

For leading roles in La Bayadère (2003), Raymonda (2004) and Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite (2007), Copeland received critical acclaim. “I really felt like I was going to crack,” she told The New York Times of those days when she was performing principal roles and dancing in the corps simultaneously. She was finally named soloist in 2012; one of her first roles with that title was The Firebird by Alexei Ratmansky, who has said that his inspiration partly derived from Copeland’s piercing, athletic jump. Unfortunately, just after Firebird, she was diagnosed with six stress fractures to her tibia, and underwent surgery. She convalesced for a year.

Copeland is currently featured in an Under Armour campaign dedicated to women athletes, whose I Will What I Want  video has received more than 6.5 million views to date. Slow motion close-ups reveal her taught, shapely musculature and elastic precision, as she ascends on pointe like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. A child’s voiceover reads an official rejection letter from a ballet academy in which she is told she doesn’t have the right body—in other words she is not waif thin.

This notion of suitability infuses Copeland’s Firebird (September 2014), a children’s book in which a young, fragile girl doubts her ability to be, like Copeland, a black ballet dancer who succeeds in a white-dominated profession. As of this writing, Lauren Anderson (Houston Ballet, 1993-2006) is the only black female principal of a major U.S. ballet company.

Copeland’s consistent advocacy is showing results. Last year, ABT announced their partnership with Project Plié, an organization that offers free ballet training to underserved youth.

Copeland performed the lead in the über white classic Swan Lake last year during ABT’s Australia tour. Many any are betting that the 32-year-old will be a principal within the year. The prodigy turned proselytiser is making history.


This profile was published in the annual issue, “Musical America 30: Professionals of the Year, Profiles in Courage” (December 2014)

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