Misty Copeland: Struggles and Triumphs of a Black Ballerina

Misty Copeland

Photo courtesy of Under Armour

Misty Copeland’s had a big year. After landing a partnership with Under Armour, the soloist with the American Ballet Theater was cast to star in Swan Lake, making her the first African-American dancer to perform the leading role in a major ballet company’s production of the show. Then last week, Time magazine named her one of its 100 Most Influential People (and she’s featured on one of the issue’s five special covers). And just last night, the new documentary about her life, A Ballerina’s Tale, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Before the film, we talked with the ballerina about how she does it — nine-hour training days and all — along with the ups and downs of her journey through the classical ballet world.

Behind the Curtain with Misty Copeland

You’ve had quite a week! How do you feel?

It’s amazing. I’m just trying to take it all in. And I think it’s going to take me some time. It’s just been nonstop. I never ever thought in a million years that all this would be happening because of ballet.

How did your documentary come about? Why did you want to do it?

I met director Nelson George at this fun dinner party three years ago. He’d never seen a ballet before, so I told him about an upcoming performance at ABT, the Firebird. He came to a show and said, “I love it, We have to do something together.” It was also the same night that I decided I had to pull out because I had a shin injury. He said, “Let’s film this process, you recovering from the injury.”

What was it like to film that experience? Difficult, we imagine?

It couldn’t have been a more perfect time. When I felt that I was at my lowest, he filmed me healing from my shin surgery and getting back on stage, and all the incredible things that have come since. He started filming me before Under Armour — before a lot of the media success I’ve had. He’s now filmed that whole journey.

Misty Copeland

Photo courtesy of Under Armour

What was it like recovering from surgery for the stress fractures in your shin? Did you really think you’d be able to come back after it? It seemed like many people had doubts.

I couldn’t tell myself that. I had to almost lie to myself because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had to say, “You’re going to,” and just keep working. Every time I see the film, I still get so emotional when I see how dark that time was for me. People were there for me but also didn’t know how to comfort me because they didn’t know what the future was going to hold. It was a very emotional thing to experience and now re-experience every time I watch it. To see how far I’ve come, it’s really cool. You get so caught up in the pain you feel every day that you forget at one point it was much worse.

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What do you hope people take away from the film?

I want them to learn about how racism is so ingrained in the classical ballet world. It’s so separated from many other art forms in that respect. We talk to older dancers in the film too, and hearing stories about their experiences and then seeing the effect it’s having on a new generation of dancers — it’s powerful.

Do you still hear any negativity, in terms of your race, or has what you’ve accomplished helped you overcome that?

I’ve seen a big shift, I think because of the media attention I’ve gotten. The focus and spotlight is on the ballet world in a way it never has been before — with the topic of diversity. The ballet world is being pushed to make changes. But I don’t know that I will ever see [racism] go away in classical ballet in my lifetime. It’s so ingrained in the culture. I see it not so much in my circle or company or to my face, but I still hear negative things. Still, it’s an exciting time, especially for brown ballerinas.

You rehearse from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days. What are your tips for staying energized through that much activity?

Misty Copeland

Photo courtesy of Under Armour

I’ll eat a bagel or muffin when I wake up, and then during the day, I snack on dried fruit, lots of nuts, and something light like sushi in the afternoon.

Do you cross-train on top of that?

I do. I take Pilates mat classes, gyrotonics classes. I do some swimming as well. And if I have any off-season time, I’ll do cardio on the elliptical to keep my stamina up.

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Recovery must be a big part of your schedule, too. What do you do in that regard?

We have to see chiropractors and get massages. I’ll do it as much as I can. As much as we work to get the muscles to react a certain way and train to be in top form, we also have to get the muscles to release.

You’ve come back from injury, signed with Under Armour, become the first African-American to star as the leading role in Swan Lake… It’s safe to say you’ve accomplished so much in the past three years. What goals do you have for the future?

Just to stay really focused on my career and to be the best artist I can be, the best dancer I can be — not compared to what other dancers have done before me or will do in the future. I want to get the word out there about ballet and to help continue the conversations about diversity in ballet.

To read more about the work Misty does to diminish race boundaries in ballet, check out Project Plié.