Misty Copeland is a professional dancer who faced many struggles due racial barriers in her professional career. Credit: Associated Press

by Tawanda W. Johnson 
Special to the AFRO

Misty Copeland knows firsthand what it’s like to struggle to fit in the predominately white world of ballet. She fought against being criticized for having a curvy body and pushed back on being told to lighten her skin for a dance role. 

Despite those struggles, Copeland, who became the first Black female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in 2015, said ballet has allowed her to be “seen and heard.” 

Misty Copeland the first Black woman to be named a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre. Credit: AFRO Photo/ James Fields

During an appearance at the Enoch Pratt Free Library last year, she explained that becoming a ballerina was an identity that she fully embraced. 

“Coming from a single parent… didn’t always feel like there was a lot of hope… always made me feel like an individual,” she told the audience. “It was something that I worked for. It became my own.”

Copeland said she grew up as a “very shy, introverted” person, but dance provided a way out of her shell. 

“It just always made me feel like I was an individual,” she recalled. 

She also found inspiration from Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and the co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. 

“I often think of…what he created in order for so many Black and Brown dancers to have a space where they could thrive,” she said. 

Since taking on her historic role with the American Ballet Theatre, Copeland, 41, has also used her platform to open the doors of the art form to a diverse group of people. 

For example, The Misty Copeland Foundation, with the support of various partners, offers free, after-school ballet classes for girls and boys in under-resourced communities. Copeland developed the curriculum, which aims to make ballet “accessible, affordable and fun,” according to her foundation’s website. Called the BE (Ballet Explorations) BOLD (Ballet Offers Leadership Development) program, it focuses on five components: introductory ballet, health and wellness, music for ballet, mentoring and tutoring.

Her foundation reflects the opportunities Copeland was fortunate to receive throughout her childhood. While growing up, Copeland benefited from local community programs, starting ballet lessons at a Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif. She was initially nervous about taking the lessons because she didn’t have the money for the proper attire. But she pressed on with the encouragement of a local coach, Cindy Bradley. 

“It was as if I’d learned the movements in a past life, and it all came back to me when I was in Cindy’s class,” Copeland wrote in her book, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina” released in 2014. A prodigy, it took Copeland just three months to dance en pointe (when all of the body weight is supported on the toes).

While she ascended the ballet world in those early years, Copeland’s home life was fraught with instability as her mother, a single parent, moved from place to place with her and her siblings. Amid a chaotic upbringing, ballet offered Copeland a respite.  

After winning a ballet competition in Los Angeles at age 15, she caught the attention of acclaimed dancer Debbie Allen, who cast her in the lead role in the production of the “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.” 

In 2012, Copeland would dance in her most famous performance as the lead in “Firebird” for the American Ballet Theatre. Leading up to the performance, she practiced frequently, failing to get enough rest, leading to six stress fractures in her tibia (also called the shinbone, it is the weight-bearing larger of two bones in the lower leg below the knee — among dancers, injuries to the tibia can be extremely painful and career threatening). 

In 2015, Time Magazine named her as one of the most influential people in the world. And last year, she received TheGrio Awards Trailblazer Icon accolade. Grio Awards are bestowed by theGrio.com, a news website, and honors those who are “shaping America’s future today” in categories ranging from the arts and culture, business, sports, health, education and the environment.

In 2016, Copeland married Olu Evans, an attorney, and they are parents to a son, Jackson, who was born in 2022. The family lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. 

These days, Copeland is known by many titles: dancer, stage actor, author and celebrity speaker. 

Copeland’s latest book is available in stores internationally including Barnes and Noble in addition to Amazon.

This article originally appeared in the Afro