Misty Copeland: dancing into history
She was caught between her impoverished mother and the ballet mistress who offered her a way out. Aaron Hicklin meets Misty Copeland, the first black principal at the American Ballet Theatre
We cannot know whether Misty Copeland would have become Americas most celebrated ballet dancer if she had not met Cindy Bradley, the flame-haired instructor who first recognised and then sharpened her talents, but it seems unlikely. Then again, its doubtful that Copeland would have met Bradley if not for Elizabeth Cantine, the coach of her school drill team who urged her to check out the free ballet class at the Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro. Nor is it clear that Copeland would have joined Cantines squad without the encouragement of her adored older sister, Erica, a drill team star. It was Erica who helped Copeland choreograph an audition piece to George Michaels I Want Your Sex. And who, knowing her story, can omit the Russian gymnast Nadia Comaneci from this roll call? As a seven-year-old, trying to emulate Comanecis pyrotechnics, Copeland instinctively understood that rhythmic motion came as naturally to me as breathing, to quote from her memoir, Life in Motion.
This is life, a cascading series of chance encounters and arbitrary choices that shape our destinies, but for a young black girl in a working-class Los Angeles suburb, who characterises her childhood as packing, scrambling, leaving often barely surviving, catching the right breaks are nigh on impossible. Yet through whatever alchemy of grit, resilience and compulsion, Misty Copeland, a 65lb ragamuffin when she arrived at Bradleys class, beat the odds. In August 2015 she was promoted to principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), the first black woman to achieve the distinction in the theatres 75-year history.
For millions of Americans, Copelands journey to the pinnacle of her profession is an archetypal story of triumph over adversity. At the Boys & Girls Club where she practised her first ballet steps, todays visitor is confronted with a painting showing Copeland in a forlorn crouch, forehead resting on her knees. Around her swirl words like agony, hurting, desolation, hardship and rejection. Next to it is another painting in which Copeland pirouettes like a music box ballerina, music notes spiralling over her head. Nearby, a sign proclaims Great Futures Start Here. Copeland is the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who got to stand tall on pointe shoes. Im often asked if Im OK being referred to as the black ballerina, she says. And I say: I dont think thats something I want to change. Were still at a point where it needs to be acknowledged all the time.