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.

Pointing the way: the ballet superstar who beat all the odds. Photograph: Danielle Levitt for the Observer

It is early afternoon, and in a small waiting area inside Steps on Broadway, one of New Yorks best-known dance studios, Copeland sits scrunched up on a bench trying to talk above the din of wailing toddlers as they wait for a class to begin. Although they might not know it, Copeland is the acme of what those little girls dream to be, and a riposte to classical ballets long history of exclusion. Its partly her Cinderella story that has made her a household name in a marginalised art, but its also a reflection of the astute way she has parlayed her visibility beyond the world of ballet. She has danced for Prince (in his 2010 Welcome 2 America tour), appeared in a 2014 commercial for Under Armour that quickly went viral, interviewed President Obama and made the cover of Time magazine in 2015 the first dancer to do so since Bill T Jones in 1994. Her memoir is to be turned into a movie.

Predictably, none of that has stopped the envious from turning her success into a question. People ask: Is she getting this opportunity just because shes had such a voice, and because shes black, or is she good enough to get this part? says Copeland. All of these things can mess with you psychologically and emotionally. Youd think it would get easier over time, but for me it gets harder.

Copeland did not always perceive the prejudice she was up against as plainly as she does today. As an adolescent, dance was a safe harbour where she felt entirely at home. Going to a school in southern California that was very diverse I never felt like I fitted in, she says. But stick me in a ballet studio surrounded by white girls, and I was, like: Oh, I belong here. I wasnt even thinking about the colour of my skin.

A cripplingly shy child, at her happiest hiding in the closet playing Solitaire or locked in the bathroom listening to Mariah Carey, Copeland was 13 when she discovered dance, a belated epiphany. Ballet was always an escape, she says. It was a place where I felt safe, and I didnt have that in any aspect of my life growing up. I was so introverted because I felt that something could hurt me. There wasnt always a man in our house who I trusted, or we werent always living in a place where I felt secure, and ballet was this one constant in my life that I could rely on.

Perpetual motion: does her life validate the idea that talent is innate? Photograph: Danielle Levitt for the Observer

In many ways Copelands life is a powerful validation of the idea that talent is innate. When I saw her in the gym, a tiny malnourished girl who stood with such poise and presence, I couldnt believe it, says Cantine. I just said: Ill take that one. Copeland not only made the squad, she was made captain. But when Cantine recommended Bradleys ballet class, Copeland was sceptical. I was, like, Absolutely not this is as far as I go outside my comfort zone. She went to watch, just to please Cantine, dutifully returning every day for two weeks until Bradley persuaded her to join in. Copeland quickly realised shed found her place. It was the first time I ever felt beautiful, she says. Just to look in the mirror and to be told: Youre what a ballerina looks like.

Bradley, a former punk rocker who had enjoyed moderate success in the 1980s with a band called the Wigs, took to her new pupil instantly. The affection was mutual. Within eight weeks, Copeland had learned to dance en pointe, a skill that most young ballerinas take years to master. The moment of triumph is recorded in a photograph that Bradley had the foresight to snap: Copeland is ramrod straight on the point of her right foot, a smile suffusing her face. Cindy was definitely a big part of my growth, not just as a dancer but as a person, says Copeland. I had never experienced someone forcing me to voice my opinion, and to communicate. I started to develop skills that were so underdeveloped in me.

Copelands growing intimacy with Bradley came at a time when life at home was getting harder. Her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna, left one temperamental husband for another, and the family found itself living in a motel, sharing two rooms and pooling loose change to buy food. Copeland found her escape in ballet, but DeLaCerna worried the commute to class was too onerous, and told her daughter to quit. That was when Bradley persuaded DeLaCerna to let Copeland move in with her, sharing a room with her two-year-old son, Wolf. Id only been married for two years, and suddenly we had a teenage girl, and she stole our hearts, immediately, says Bradley. On Fridays, Copeland would make matzo ball soup and light the Sabbath candles. It just felt like this beautiful thing that they shared, and I think thats what I was drawn to, Copeland says. When the Bradleys had a professional family portrait taken, Copeland was part of it.

Girl prodigy: in 1998, as a child dancer. Photograph: Kevin Karzin/AP

Its not difficult to see how this would begin to grate on Copelands mother and siblings, who began describing their sister as brainwashed. When those pressures finally exploded, shortly after Copeland won a prestigious award for playing Kitri in her favourite ballet Don Quixote, the fallout was painful and highly public. DeLaCerna decided her daughter no longer needed the Bradleys; in response they encouraged Copeland to petition the courts for emancipation from her parents. DeLaCerna fought back, securing the legendary civil rights lawyer, Gloria Allred. Eventually, Copeland dropped her petition, but the damage was lasting. It was very traumatic having so much of my life exposed for everyone to see, she says. It took 10 years before I could talk about it without crying. It was no easier for Bradley. It was a huge void that never healed, she says. I had so many things to say to her. The two would not speak for 15 years.

In May, Copeland will play Kitri again, but this time in a production for the ABT. Its the role of a lifetime, one she has dreamed about since seeing her idol, Paloma Herrera, play it in 1996. But Copeland is 34 now, and her journey has been arduous. In 2012, days after her critically lauded debut in the title role of Stravinskys Firebird, she discovered six stress fractures in her tibia. It would take seven months of physical therapy before she could return to the stage. Last year, she finally got to reprise her Firebird performance, one of several lead roles she took on as part of the ABTs spring/summer season, including Odette in Swan Lake. She also married her long-time beau Olu Evans. Her promotion to principal dancer may be a vindication of her hard work, but she knows a dancers career is short. A couple of weeks after I was promoted to principal dancer was the first time I felt: This is the beginning of the end, she says. I was promoted at a very late age for a dancer, so my career as a principal will definitely be shorter than most. She thinks for a moment. The scary thing is what will fill that void. She laughs. My poor husband.

We live in an era, to quote dance critic Madison Mainwaring in The Atlantic, when Kim Kardashians selfies get more serious coverage than dancers who have dedicated their lives to their form. Copeland might be the exception that proves the rule, but the vitality of classical dance in America rides on the trail shes blazing. At a time of heightened consciousness around black identity, her story has lured new audiences to classical dance. Is it enough? The ballet world is constantly talking about how we need more exposure, to bring more people in, but they dont want to change anything about it, Copeland says, with exasperation. It doesnt work that way, something has to change and evolve.

Ruffling feathers: as Odette in Swan Lake in 2015 for the Washington Ballet. Photograph: Theo Kossenas Photography

Its a bright blue morning in San Pedro, and the city glows after weeks of abnormally high rainfall. In her black Volkswagen Beetle, Bradley is pointing out the landmarks of Copelands youth. Did you see the sign? she asks, pointing to a plaque that reads Misty Copeland Square at an intersection adjacent to the San Pedro Ballet School, a former bakery that Bradley and her husband, Patrick, bought in 1998. The plaque was unveiled just before Christmas in 2015, and if you Google footage of the ceremony, you will see a visibly moved Copeland thanking the Bradleys for giving me a path and platform to change not only my life, but so many little brown girls lives.

Bradley drives me to her former condo, near a bluff overlooking the ocean. In her memoir, Copeland recalls it smelling of cinnamon and the sea. We sit in the car for a while, and Bradley tells stories of Copeland helping to potty-train Wolf, dancing with him, being a sister. It seems like yesterday, she sighs. I knew it wasnt going to end well from the start. It was wonderful, but very scary, feeling that every minute was going to be our last. She pauses. But it worked out OK.

Our tour ends where the story begins at the Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro. Inside the gymnasium, Bradley indicates the lines of benches. She wasnt just watching casually she was absorbing while she was sitting there, she says, summoning the image. She didnt move, she watched intently for a few weeks and kept saying No, no, no, until finally she stepped on to the floor. She was a skinny, skinny brown girl with pretty hair.

Happy couple: with long-time beau Olu Evans, who she married last year. Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision

Ever since Bradley could dance, she has wanted to teach. I just thought: Everybody needs to know this, she says. In Copeland she found her first prodigy. I touched her foot and thats when the magic happened, she says, lost in a private reverie. Ive never been able to describe it before, but I knew she was special. Blinking back tears, she shakes her head in astonishment. She hadnt danced! she says. It was an angels singing moment. That same day, Bradley offered Copeland a scholarship, sending a note home to her mother.

We walk back through the club, past the twin posters of Misty Copeland in despair and triumph, the pool table, the vending machine dispensing frozen fruit bars, the spray-painted symbol of the power fist. And as we emerge into the sunlight, Bradley recovers her composure. I have actually just found my second prodigy Enrique. She pulls out her phone. Ill show you a picture. Like Copeland, Enrique started late (at 16), and like Copeland, he is beset by challenges, most having to do with being a Latino man in a world still defined as white and female. Its the first Ive talked about him, because I learned the first time you should not talk about them too much, says Bradley. She laughs, before adding: Until youre ready to lose them. We both peer at the photo. This is a while ago, so hes more spectacular now, she says, beaming. Hes got it all.

Hair and Make-up by Bank using Pacifica at Factory Downtown; Producer Stephanie Porto; Digital Tech Jordan Zuppa; Lighting perry hall and JP Herrera; Set design Chris Stone; location Steps on Broadway, NYC

Life in Motion by Misty Copeland is published by Sphere, 9.99. Order it for 8.49 at bookshop.theguardian.com

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/mar/05/misty-copeland-principal-american-ballet-theatre-life-in-motion