Women's History Month

Star Ballerina

Misty Copeland is the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She is inspiring others to follow in her steps.

January 20, 2016

Misty Copeland dances in Giselle at the Metropolitan Opera House, in New York City.

A basketball court is an unusual place to dance ballet—or for a star ballerina to be discovered. But it was on a court at a Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, California, that Misty Copeland took her first ballet class. She was 13 years old.

Copeland’s mother raised her and her five siblings. They moved many times and didn’t have much money. “It was a free class,” Copeland told TFK. “It was the first time I had those opportunities presented to me.”

Cynthia Bradley, a ballet teacher, wanted to reach out to young people who might not otherwise have the chance to study classical ballet. “When I was introduced to ballet,” says Copeland, “it sparked this new way of looking at things.”

Now Copeland, 33, is helping others see classical dance and ballet dancers in a new way. She is one of the first African Americans to become a principal, or top, dancer at a leading international ballet company. She is inspiring others to follow in her graceful footsteps.

Rising to Stardom

The age of 13 is late for a dancer to begin. But Copeland persevered. “I knew ballet was the thing,” she says. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

Bradley encouraged Copeland to take classes with her at the San Pedro Ballet School. Two years later, Copeland was accepted into a summer program with the San Francisco Ballet. By 17, she had moved to New York City to take part in special training with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), one of the world’s leading ballet companies.

Breaking Boundaries

Copeland hugs a fan at an event for Project Plié. The program helps bring top ballet training to communities where it hasn’t been available.

Copeland hugs a fan at an event for Project Plié. The program helps bring top ballet training to communities where it hasn’t been available.

At ABT, it was clear to the muscular Copeland that her body type and skin color stood out. She was the only African-American woman in a company of 80 dancers. “For so many generations, ballerinas have been seen as these very frail, thin white women,” she says. Copeland is proud to set an example that you don’t have fit a mold to succeed. “You can create your own path,” she says. “You can be who you are. You don’t have to look like the person next to you. I think that’s important for kids to understand.”

For years, Copeland paid her dues in small roles at ABT. She bounced back after a serious injury in 2012. On June 30, 2015, Copeland was promoted. She became the first African-American woman to be a principal dancer­ in ABT’s 75-year history.

Copeland has appeared on Broadway and written books. But her work to help young dancers find their way remains center stage (see “Dancer’s Dreams”). “A part of human nature is passing down all the things that you’ve learned,” she says. “That’s how you make the world better.”

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