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Misty Copeland Seeks To Inspire Other African-American Dancers


One of the world's most celebrated dancers has broken a major barrier. The American Ballet Theatre promoted Misty Copeland to principal dancer. She's the first African-American in that coveted role at the ABT. It's yet another moment in Copeland's career that's important both artistically and symbolically. Last year, she appeared in a powerful commercial for Under Armour. What you see is Copeland - elegant, beautiful, athletic - dancing on screen. But what you hear is a girl who's just been rejected.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Dear candidate, thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately, you have not been accepted. You lack the right feet, Achilles tendons, turnout, torso length and bust. You have the wrong body for ballet. And at 13, you are too old to be considered.

WERTHEIMER: Misty Copeland wrote a children's book about her struggles and triumphs. She talked about it last fall with our colleague, Steve Inskeep. Here's an encore of that conversation.



We are hearing music from a famous ballet called "The Firebird," which is where Copeland got the name of the book.

MISTY COPELAND: "The Firebird" just symbolizes a lot for me and my career. It was one of the first really big principal roles that I was ever given an opportunity to dance with American Ballet Theatre, and it was a huge step for the African-American community, I think, within the classical ballet world. And for them to come out and support me in the way that they did, coming to the Metropolitan Opera House to see me perform that role, I think was just a step in the change and direction that ballet is going.

INSKEEP: Misty Copeland dedicated "Firebird" to her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American ballerina to tour the country. In the 1950s, that was no small feat.

COPELAND: She was pretty much chased out when they were touring the South, by the KKK, who were threatening that she couldn't perform in their theaters or stay in the hotels that the other dancers were with. And they were trying to kind of hide her and have her blend in and not notice that she was a dancer of color. So she experienced a lot more severe, life-threatening racism than other minorities experience in the ballet world at this point.

INSKEEP: Overt racism aside, has ballet been a particularly difficult field for African-American women to break into?

COPELAND: Yes, and I think that the reason is the racism and not wanting to change this very traditional art form that has been the way it - you know, successful in the way it is for so long. And it's hard to be the one that stands out when, you know, in a ballet company, you're trying to create unison and uniform when you're in a cour de ballet.

INSKEEP: Oh, and that is the way that you dance and it also may be the body type that you have.

COPELAND: Yeah, I mean, I think that that goes along with just kind of being closed-minded because I don't think every African-American or Latino or, you know, have the same body type.


COPELAND: But yes, that's been one of the excuses, I think, saying that, you know, African-Americans are too muscular or just aren't lean enough, and usually they, say, oh, they have flat feet so they don't have the flexibility that it takes to create the line in a pointe shoe. When people meet me in person, they're usually surprised at how petite I am because there's this idea that because I'm black, I just look a certain way.

INSKEEP: What, that you should be big and muscular or something?

COPELAND: Yeah, well, but some people even think that I'm still just not right for it. And I think it's shocking because they hear those words from critics saying I'm too bulky, I'm too busty. And then they meet me in person and they're like, you look like a ballerina. I don't understand.

And I think it's just something maybe that I will never escape from, those people who are narrow-minded. But my mission, my voice, my story, my message, is not for them. And I think it's more important to think of the people that I am influencing and helping to see a broader picture of what beauty is.

INSKEEP: That leads to something that I wondered about reading this book. It's a very optimistic book. You're talking to a young woman, a girl, and she's saying, I could never do what you do. And you're saying, yes, you can. And in fact you go on to say, yes, you can. You say that you will, you will succeed.


INSKEEP: Did you hesitate before putting down on the page such a voice of certainty?

COPELAND: No (laughter). I think that especially young kids need to hear those words because I think that if you say, you know, it's maybe, or it's possible, I think that it's very easy for them to interpret that as no, it's not. There are so many opportunities beyond these top companies that they can be a part of the ballet world in some way, and so I think it's necessary for them to hear that.

INSKEEP: So you weren't just thinking metaphorically - well, in some way in life, you will dance and soar - you're actually saying, you will do this if you're determined to do it.

COPELAND: Exactly. You will. And I've seen it happen with these girls that come to me and some of them are really broken because they've been told no so many times, and they're making it happen for themselves. There's a young girl that I've known since she was maybe 3 years old, a mixed race like I am, half black and half white. And when I met her, she just - she was considering going into a contemporary and modern company, and now she dances with Dance Theatre of Harlem. And that's a path that I don't know if she considered, but she's performing classical ballets, and she couldn't be happier.

INSKEEP: Now, you are in your early 30s now, right...


INSKEEP: ...Which is getting rather late in the career for a ballet dancer, is it not?

COPELAND: Somewhat. Depending on the level you're at in your company, the higher you go up in rank, usually the longer you can dance.

INSKEEP: So do you have aspirations to break another barrier and, you know, be there for another decade or whatever you might be able to manage?

COPELAND: That's the plan.

INSKEEP: Is it really?

COPELAND: I absolutely love what I do, and I want to dance for as long as I can and feel good about what I'm putting out there on the stage. But my goal has always been to be a principal dancer with ABT. Before I knew that there'd never been a black woman that was always my goal. I wanted to dance "Odette-Odile" and Kitri in "Don Quixote" and Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty." So that's still my goal. But knowing that it's never been done before I think makes me fight even harder.

WERTHEIMER: That is Misty Copeland, who has now achieved her goal. She spoke last year with Steve Inskeep. Yesterday, Copeland was named a principal dancer by the American Ballet Theatre, the first African-American to earn that role. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.