Our series “How I became a …” digs into the stories of accomplished and influential people, finding out how they got to where they are in their careers.
When Misty Copeland took her very first ballerina class on the basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club, her life began clicking into place. Following her humble beginnings on the basketball court, Copeland took the stage years later as the first-ever African American female principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre. Copeland has since spent years dancing en pointe (on the tips of the toes) and inspiring women and men around the world, performing everywhere from Prince’s purple piano to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House.
USA TODAY caught up with the ballerina, author, and spokesmodel to talk about everything from finding ballet as a young child and dancing for 12 hours a day to diversifying the field of ballet and realizing that everyone is just human.
Question: How did you get your start with dance?
Misty Copeland: I was one of six children, so we didn’t have a ton of opportunity to really have any kind of individual chance to go play a sport or go take a dance class. We didn’t have the means at all to that – we were constantly moving from city to city and not always having a home. When I discovered who Mariah Carey was, I had this innate, visceral response and she became this kind of protection for me. Whenever there was chaos or whatever was going on in my life, she was this escape. That turned into movement being an escape. I ended up auditioning for the dance team at my middle school, and they made me captain even though I literally had no dance experience. I was 13 at that time, and that’s when I was discovered by a teacher that saw a lot of potential in me and told me to take ballet class. (There was a) free class at the Boys & Girls Club, so I took my first ballet class on the basketball court.
‘The Nutcracker’ movie:Misty Copeland taught Disney a thing or two about ballet
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
Copeland: It’s all over the place and constantly changing, but if I were preparing for our spring season, it would be 7:15 a.m. to 7 p.m. rehearsing. At this point, we’re preparing to go on tour and preparing and creating new works for upcoming seasons, so I’m doing that stuff but also am working on so many other things that I’m doing outside of ABT. Just meetings with my production company, the book, interviews, speaking engagements, things like that. It’s exciting to not have a monotonous, every day the same.
Q: What is your favorite part about your job?
Copeland: Performing, but also traveling.
Q: What do you credit your success to?
Copeland: Support, mentorship, amazing examples, and incredible black women throughout my life that have stayed with me, making sure that I was going to live out what I think my purpose is, as well as my husband.
Q: How do you balance work, life, and such a busy schedule?
Copeland: I think having an amazing team. I wouldn’t be able to find any balance if I didn’t have a team who I trusted that was truly looking out for my best interest, and could literally just be like, “wake up and go here!” That definitely allows me to be present in whatever I’m doing from day-to-day, which has been a learning process. When I first started working with them, I had this struggle with letting go of control, and when you’re so focused and stressed about what’s to come, especially as a dancer, you can’t just be free and in the moment. They have helped me to find my balance.
Q: What have been some of your biggest career highs?
Copeland: Definitely my first performance of “Firebird” in New York City. It was a really, really special night and a very important season for me. I was still a soloist (when I was given)] that role at American Ballet Theatre, and the audience was full of brown people for the first time ever. I could open people’s eyes and minds to what was possible in terms of diversifying – not just the dancers on the stage, but the people in the audience – and allowing them to feel accepted, and that this was a space they belonged in as well. And then, being promoted to principal dancer. Those are two moments that still, to this day, seem surreal.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Copeland: I think it’s just about showing the youth that hearing rejection and receiving rejection or negativity does not equate to failure. Just to know that you have support around you and that you can’t do it on your own and that’s not a bad thing – these are lessons that I’ve learned and that I just try to give to young people, just to let them know that they may look at me and see this perfect image of what they think my life is like, and then I say that I’ve probably experienced exactly what you’re going through. I think it’s important for people to see that we’re all human.
• What’s your coffee order? A matcha green tea latte
• What’s your favorite book? Probably something by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m also definitely in children’s books mode, so when I think about “Where the Wild Things Are” or those types of creative books that I feel like influenced me so much growing up
• What’s your favorite song at the moment? “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” by Lauryn Hill
• Who has been one of your biggest mentors? I’ve had so many that have come and gone but made equally as big of an impact, but Raven Wilkinson – who passed last year – was probably the biggest influence and motivator for me to see my capabilities and see my career in a different way. It was beyond just being on the stage and having a voice in that way, but to be able to understand my purpose and what I could represent for so many because she did that for me.
• What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done? Dancing on top of Prince’s purple grand piano at Madison Square Garden