Misty Copeland is an American ballet dancer and the first African-American performer to be appointed as a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre.
Copland was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1982 and raised in San Pedro, California. When she was seven, Copeland saw Nadia on the Lifetime network and Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci became her new role model. Copland would perform dance routines at home to the music of Mariah Carey and as a result of this, was chosen to be the captain of her drill team at Dana Middle School. Elizabeth Cantine, the coach of the drill team noticed Copeland’s talent and suggested that Copeland take ballet classes. Copeland already attended a local Boys & Girls Club and at 13 she began to take ballet lessons there.
Copeland was taught by Cynthia “Cindy” Bradley who quickly realised that she was a prodigy, able to see and perform choreographed movement immediately and dance en pointe after only three months of training. Eight months after she began ballet, Copeland performed as Clara in The Nutcracker, drawing 2,000 patrons per show. She followed this with a larger role in Don Quixote and a featured role in The Chocolate Nutcracker, an African American version of the tale that was narrated by Debbie Allen.
At fifteen, Copeland won first place in the Music Center Spotlight Awards. Copland studied at the San Francisco Ballet School and American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) Summer Intensive on full scholarship and was declared ABT’s National Coca-Cola Scholar in 2000. In September of that year, Copeland was one of six dancers selected to join ABT’s Studio Company out of 150 who had studied the 2000 Summer Intensive Program. Copeland became a member of the corps de ballet the following year.
In 2007, Copeland was appointed an ABT soloist, one of the youngest dancers promoted. She performed in Marius Petipa’s La Bayadère, Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird and The Nutcracker, and Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite and Bach Partita, among an array of performances that were well received. Her dancing was seen as more sophisticated and contemporary as a soloist than it had been as a corps dancer. She was the company’s second African American female Soloist and the first in two decades.
In 2009, Copeland won the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Arts. The fellowship funds study with master teachers and trainers outside of the American Ballet Theatre. It is awarded in recognition of young artists of extraordinary talent with the goal of providing them with additional resources in order to fully realise their potential”. That summer, she performed in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux adaptation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake “Pas de Deux” and in the autumn she performed in the ABT’s first time to Beijing. The six-performance trip was the first by an American ballet company at the new National Center for the Performing Arts. In February 2011, in honor of Black History Month, Copeland was selected by Essence as one of its 37 Boundary-breaking black women in entertainment. Copland was recognised by the The Council of Urban Professionals as the Council’s Breakthrough Leadership Award winner at its 5th Anniversary Leadership Gala in 2012.
In 2014, Copeland published two piece of literary work: the New York Times best-selling memoir Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, with journalist Charisse Jones as co-writer, and the award-winning children’s picture book Firebird, with art by Christopher Myers. Also in 2015, Copeland received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford in November 2014 for her contributions to classical ballet and helping to diversify the art form.
In June 2015, Copeland became the first African-American woman to dance with ABT in the dual role of Odette and Odile in Pyotry Ilycih Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Later that year, she was promoted to principal dancer, making her the first African American woman to ever be promoted to the position in the company’s 75-year history. She has provided young black girls with a role model in ballet, and has continually acknowledged the responsibility she feels to black girls looking to become ballet dancers.
Copeland’s accomplishments have been recognised by a range of institutions, including an induction into the Boys & Girls Club National Hall of Fame in May 2012, the “Breakthrough Award” from the Council of Urban Professionals in April 2012, being named National Youth of the Year Ambassador for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in June 2013 and receiving the Young, Gifted & Black honour at the 2013 Black Girls Rock! Awards. In spring 2015 she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, which is rare for someone from the dance world. Copeland is also a member of President Barack Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition and works with many charitable organisations. She dedicates her time to work with and mentor young girls and boys.