Misty Copeland on her legacy and bringing diversity to ballet: 'I had to realize my power as a black dancer'

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Misty Copeland was once told to lighten her skin to fit in with other ballerinas. She refused and decided to own her power as a black dancer.

Misty Copeland was once told she'd have to lighten her skin to fit in with the ballet blanc, in which the female dancers wear white and are made to look ghost-like.

She did not oblige.

"Even the [standard] color for pointe shoes is called 'European pink,'" she said Monday over brunch at Black Barn restaurant in New York City.

Copeland, who became the first black principal ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in 2015, hosted a group of writers and editors for an intimate meal and a preview of her UA Misty Copeland Signature Collection. But frittatas and high-waisted leggings weren't the only things on the menu. Copeland candidly discussed surviving and thriving in a world in which she was often an outsider.

"The ballet world has been slow to progress. But things are changing," she said. "I've always seen myself as mentoring people on stage. I understand what I represent to young women of color."

When reflecting on her influence, Copeland credits the late Raven Wilkinson, one of the first African-American dancers to perform with a major ballet company (the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), for helping her feel more secure and confident on stage. "Meeting her helped me realize my power as a black person in ballet," Copeland said. "I really struggled. For the first 10 years at ABT, I was the only black woman."

The 36-year-old, who also notes the late singer Prince as a former mentor, added that change is coming. "I've been told I had to lighten my skin to play a cat [in a stage production], but why can't I be a brown cat?" she said. "It's about owning and accepting the history, then moving past it."

Copeland, who has become a mentor to many young ballerinas, including Michaela DePrince, is focusing on her long-term legacy and the impact she has had on the world of dance. "I want to have a family and do the work I'm passionate about," she said.

"I recently started my own production company. I want to be able to give African-Americans and other brown people an opportunity to be the actors, producers, writers and directors they want to be."

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