- By MAUREEN CALLAHAN
When Misty Copeland was discovered at age 13 by a ballet instructor at her local Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif., she was so poor that she’d never seen a ballet, heard of ballet or knew what a ballerina looked like. She spent part of her teen years living in a single motel room with her mother and five siblings, hungry and afraid and just trying to make the hours-long commute to and from school each day.
“I had no introduction to the arts in any way — definitely not the fine arts,” she says. “Survival was our Number 1 priority, not extracurriculars, or a career. These were not things we thought about.”
Today, at 30 years old, Misty Copeland is the first black female in two decades to be a soloist at the American Ballet Theatre. This week, she stars in the Met’s production of “Le Corsaire,” just eight months after suffering a nearly career-ending injury. She has danced with Prince, become an advocate for opening up ballet to minorities and the underprivileged and has come to represent the future of ballet in America: more modern, inclusive, elastic.
She’s always been a fighter, and as hard as it is for her to revisit certain parts of her life — more than once during this interview, she visibly fought back tears — she feels compelled to share her story.
“For young African-Americans to feel that they have a chance to see a brown face on the stage, that ballet isn’t this white world that’s untouchable to them — I think having that visual does so much,” she says. “I think it’s so important for them to see me and to hear me.”
Aside from her origins, so much of Misty Copeland’s story is unprecedented. Most ballet dancers begin at age 5, studying in schools that serve as factory lines into the world’s most prestigious companies: the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi, the Paris Opera Ballet. Most ballerinas are lithe and lean; Misty is 5-foot-2 1/2, muscular and curvaceous. Most study through their childhood and adolescence in a fugue state, ballet the sole focus; Misty was discovered so late that she had only a four-year window to complete 17 years’ worth of training.
She also had no desire to become a ballerina.
“I was pushed into it,” she says. “I was just a very nervous, fearful child, afraid of anything new.”
Her mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, had been a dancer and a professional cheerleader with the Kansas City Chiefs, but Misty didn’t realize that she, too, was a natural until she was 12 years old, auditioning for the drill team. “I choreographed a dance number to George Michael’s ‘I Want Your Sex,’ ” she says, laughing. “They made me captain, so I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this!’ Even though I had no idea what I was doing.”