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An inside story of the 'unlikely ballerina' who went from 'pretty much homeless' to dance superstar

Professional ballerina Misty Copeland has made history countless times over.

YE-POP CULTURE MOMENTS Source: AP/Press Association Images

PROFESSIONAL BALLERINA Misty Copeland, 33, made history last year when she became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer with the legendary American Ballet Theatre.

This week she’s making headlines with a recent Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot that recreated images from the famous paintings and sculptures of French artist Edgar Degas.

Copeland told the magazine she had difficulty freezing in these certain pre-determined poses because, like all dancers, she’s a bit of a control freak.

“It was interesting to be on a shoot and to not have the freedom to just create like I normally do with my body,” she explained.

Her frame may be petite, but her stage presence is huge and has ignited opportunities that extend far beyond international magazines.

She served as a judge on So You think You Can Dance; wrote a memoir and a children’s book; was part of the Under Armour I Will What I Want campaign; was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME last year; and was the subject of the documentary A Ballerina’s Tale, which debuted at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

The dancer describes herself as an “unlikely ballerina” (it’s the subtitle of her 2014 memoir), and it’s true: whatever your ballet stereotypes, it’s likely Copeland doesn’t fit them.

Here’s how she went from “pretty much homeless” to dance superstar. 

Misty Copeland was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1982. When she was 2 years old, her parents divorced, and her mom, Sylvia, moved Copeland and her three older siblings to start over in Bellflower, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

The next time she saw her biological father, she would be 22 and a dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.

Copeland spent her childhood “dancing to Mariah Carey videos, rewatching a movie about the gymnast Nadia Comaneci, and being very prepared for school, where she was a hall monitor and the class treasurer,” wrote Rivka Galchen in a 2014 New Yorker profile.

TV-Most Fascinating Source: AP/Press Association Images

But she didn’t take any formal gymnastics or dance classes until she was 13 – insanely late for a female ballet dancer. These kids below are auditioning for the super prestigious School of American Ballet. They’re between 6 and 10.

At 13, Copeland tried out for her middle-school drill team with a piece she choreographed to George Michael’s I Want Your Sex. That night, she got a call from the coach: she was going to be captain of the 60-person squad. It was her first audition.

PastedImage-3780 Source: Mark Von Holden/AP

Noticing her potential, her coach pointed her toward ballet classes as the local Boys & Girls Club. “I wasn’t excited by the idea of being with people I didn’t know, and though I loved movement, I had no particular feelings about ballet,” Copeland told the New Yorker.

PastedImage-96910 Here's her teacher, Cindy Bradley, working with a fellow student. Source: Kevin Karzin/AP

She was a natural. Immediately, Bradley had a vision of “this little girl becoming amazing”. Soon, she was going to classes five days a week.

PastedImage-69364 Source: Kevin Karzin/AP

It takes most dancers about three years to get “en pointe” — dancing in toe shoes. It took Copeland three months.

PastedImage-15651 Source: zaimoku_woodpile/Flickr

Money was tight, and eventually, her family moved into two rooms in the Sunset Inn in Gardena –  too far for her to keep commuting to Bradley’s studio, so she started living at Bradley’s house during the week. That went on for three years.

PastedImage-26419 Source: CBS News 24/YouTube

Copeland thrived, winning major competitions after only a few years of study. “I just loved it,” she told the LA Times. In the summer of 1998, she was accepted to the San Francisco Ballet’s summer intensive on full scholarship.

PastedImage-71842 Source: San Francisco Ballet/YouTube

After that summer, her mam wanted her to move home, but Copeland and Bradley thought that would hurt her career. An ugly battle ensued. She filed for emancipation, but she was too young. “It was a nightmare,” Copeland told Galchen.

PastedImage-11144 Source: Avideogal/YouTube

The next summer, Copeland got into the American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive, and was invited to join the studio company.

“She has what I call ‘the Package,’” ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie observed to the LA Times. “Very beautiful body proportions, musicality and coordination. People usually have two of the three, but she has all three.”

PastedImage-19742 Source: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

She made the agonising decision to wait, but a year later, she moved to New York. At 18, she became a member of the ABT’s Corps de ballet and began performing at Lincoln Center.

PastedImage-33561 Source: Kathy Willens/AP

An early injury caused a doctor to worry about her bone strength, and he induced a delayed puberty. “It was a shock,” she told Elle. “I had no idea what to do with my body. It wasn’t responding like it used to. It was like starting over.”

Misty Copeland's Broadway Debut in On The Town Source: AP/Press Association Images

But Copeland continued to rise through the ranks, and at 24, she was promoted to soloist with the company — the third black, female soloist in ABT history.

PastedImage-39732 Source: Gildasquire/Wikimedia Commons

Her race was notable in the extremely white world of ballet. When she first moved to New York, she was the only African-American in a company of 80 dancers.

“I felt alone in a world that had become my home and it gave me mixed feelings,” she says in a clip from the documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale. To cope, she would sometimes eat a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts in one sitting after practice.

PastedImage-25515 Source: YouTube/Teen Vogue

Her next goal was clear: to become the first African American principal dancer in the history of the ABT.

PastedImage-37635 Source: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Copeland was already dancing leading roles, but she had not yet reached the very top. “The difference between soloist and principal is the ability to understand and master the smallest details,” notes the Huffington Post.

There was speculation she would be promoted to principal after dancing the title role in The Firebird in 2012, but she was sidelined with an injury.

69th Annual Tony Awards - Arrivals Source: AP/Press Association Images

In 2014, the already-famous Copeland became a household name in the US when she starred in a viral ad for the athletic apparel brand Under Armour. In any given year, 6.5 million people see live ballet, but this one ad has more than 8 million views on YouTube.

Source: Under Armour/YouTube

On  30 June 2015, the then 32-year-old became the first African American woman to be named principal in the ABT’s 75-year history, and she hopes her achievement will inspire others. “It’s not me up here,” she said in a press conference. “It’s everyone that came before me that got me to this position.”

Dance Misty Copeland Source: AP/Press Association Images

But that’s just one accomplishment from her stellar year. She also made her Broadway debut as Ivy Smith in the revival of On The Town. The New York Times praised her performance saying, “She lit up the stage of the Lyric Theater — enough to make you wonder: Is Ms. Copeland’s home on Broadway?”

Misty Copeland's Broadway Debut in On The Town Source: AP/Press Association Images

She was also named to the prestigious ’100 most influential people’ list by TIME. Nadia Comaneci, a gymnast and five-time Olympic gold medalist, wrote about Copeland for the magazine saying her story of perseverance makes her a “model for all young girls”.


In November 2015, Glamour honoured her with a Women of the Year award. The magazine sums up why she was chosen with this quote from actress Kerry Washington: “She’s blazed her own path — and proven that you don’t have to bend to society’s expectations because you look a certain way.”

2015 Glamour Women of the Year Awards - Show Source: AP/Press Association Images

Even Barbara Walters picked up on the rising dancer and named her as one of the ’10 Most Fascinating People of 2015′ calling her “a trailblazer in a tutu”. In the interview Copeland says she thinks she’s changed the perception that African-American women’s feet are too flat or their legs are too muscular to do classical ballet.

Source: Fusion/YouTube

Her story was garnering so much attention that she even starred in and narrated an 85-minute documentary on her rags-to-riches story, with a special emphasis on the challenges that came with being black in a pre-dominately white profession. The film, A Ballerina’s Tale, debuted at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.


Copeland is also an author. She released two books in 2014 — a memoir titled Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina and a children’s book titled Firebird, which she read at the 2015 White House Easter Egg Roll.

PastedImage-29315 Source: YouTube/The White House

Most recently, Copeland wrapped up her reprisal as Princess Florine in Sleeping Beauty for the American Ballet Theatre. In addition to dancing, she is pursuing her writing career with a third book, Ballerina Body, on health and fitness that will be released in early 2017. She’s also working on a 60-minute television drama about a group of aspiring dancers that are competing for places at a major ballet company.

PastedImage-74701 Source: YouTube/Jimmy Kimmel Live

At 33, Copeland has a more-than-impressive résumé, which includes ballerina, book author, television writer, Broadway performer, and film subject. But it didn’t come easy — she worked hard to make it all happen. As her famous Under Armour commercial says, “I will what I want.”


Rachel Sugar contributed to a previous version of this article. 

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