The Conversation With Misty Copeland, Breaking Ground In Ballet

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In this signature espnW column, Allison Glock sits down for a candid Q&A with a remarkable person. The aim is to cover topics high and low, deep and less so, to present a fresh look at folks we think we know and meet some others we wish we'd known all along. Welcome to The Conversation.

Who: Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, a New York Times bestselling author, humanitarian and 2015 espnW IMPACT25 influencer.


Allison Glock: Welcome home, Misty. You've just returned to New York from Rwanda, where you were working with MindLeaps, a program that uses dance as a tool to decrease the number of children living on the street by helping transform aggression and survival instincts into optimism and discipline.

Misty Copeland: Yeah. It's only been a couple days I've been back. It was so hard to leave.

AG: You've credited dance with calming the chaos in your own childhood, so your work in Rwanda seems like an incredible fit.

MC: I learned about MindLeaps about three years ago. There aren't many programs that reach out and restructure people's lives in Africa, and to be using the arts and dance, it sounded so interesting. Then to actually get to go and witness firsthand what they're doing to get these kids educated and fed and off the streets, it was remarkable.

AG: In the video diary of your trip there, a young boy takes you to an underground tunnel where he sleeps. You then show a clip of him joyfully practicing the dance you taught him on his own, without knowing you're filming him. It is a devastating juxtaposition, and a true testament to the power and healing value of dance and art.

MC: I couldn't stop crying when I left. And I didn't get to say goodbye to this particular group of boys I was super close to and working with every day. That was difficult. But I'm going to reach out via email and video. You can't believe the circumstances these children are in, and yet they choose to be happy. It put so much into perspective.

AG: Especially now, given the whirlwind of your life at the moment. This year alone you've made your debut on Broadway in "On the Town"; filmed a documentary about your life, "A Ballerina's Tale"; and been appointed the American Ballet Theatre's principal dancer at 33 years old.

MC: Yeah. [Laughs.] When I cry these days, they are usually happy tears. It tends to happen when I allow myself to absorb how much hard work I have done. It takes me a minute to really grasp a lot of the things I'm so grateful for.

AG: When you were 7 years old, you watched a film about 1976 Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci, which you've credited with helping spur your journey to dance.

MC: The only introduction I'd had to dance in any way up to that point was watching the floor exercise in the Olympics. So when this movie came out about Nadia, I became obsessed. Who is this girl?

AG: Do you think you were attracted to her mastery? She was so dominant. Tens across the board. Unimpeachable.

MC: At the time, I wasn't aware of why she inspired me so much. I knew I was drawn to the athletic, gymnastic side of things. Looking back, I can see I was also attracted to the perfectionist side of her. Her discipline. I was drawn to all of that without really knowing why. Without knowing I needed those things in my life.

AG: Did you ever consider gymnastics?

MC: I wanted to, but I never did. I would copy what I saw Nadia do in the movie. I would go into my yard and teach myself to do cartwheels and handstands and backflips and pretend I was doing floor exercises.

AG: I did the same thing! I taught myself how to do an aerial cartwheel.

MC: Impressive. I didn't even go there.

AG: Well, you can probably do one right now without even trying. [Copeland laughs.] At 13, you began traditional ballet classes at the San Pedro City Ballet in California.

MC: Yes. And it was this seamless thing. Even though I had no formal training of any kind before I started taking classes, all the hard work and hours and the overall commitment required in ballet, none if it was ever an issue for me. Dance was this magic that had been missing in my world. It was as if I'd had this hole in my life that was finally filled.

AG: You were also influenced by singer Mariah Carey as a young girl, which is kind of a perfect marriage for ballet -- the stunning show woman in Carey and the exacting workhorse in Comaneci. Who or what inspires you now?

MC: I went through a period when I was finding out what it was to have mentors. And there were so many older women that I was motivated by. But now, at this point, I feel like it is the young kids that motivate me -- the ones that I mentor both in Rwanda and here.

AG: What is it about the children that speaks to you?

MC: The perseverance it takes when you are involved in a sport or an art form is just so crazy and intense. And it is rare to find that dedication among young people these days. So it has been really inspirational to see young people putting their cell phones down and committing to something so hard and so beautiful.

AG: Has it been surreal to see kids dressing up as Misty Copeland for Halloween?

MC: It's very strange. It started a couple of years ago and back then it was mostly among the gay community. I would see these guys with a tutu on and their bras stuffed. You know, dressed like the brown ballerina with the big chest. I was like, "Oh! That's me!" It was funny. Now it is mostly little girls.

AG: You've become an icon.

MC: For me, it's not like, "Oh, that's a girl dressed up in a Misty costume." It's more I feel like my career is allowing these young brown girls to finally envision themselves as ballerinas, and that hasn't always been the case.

AG: You've acknowledged that the ABT was your "ultimate goal, always," and now you are not only the principal dancer, but the only African-American ballerina in history to become one. Talk about 10s across the board. And yet, some people still don't seem to get the significance of that accomplishment.

MC: I do get a lot of people who are not minorities, or are not African-American, who say to me, "It infuriates me that you feel you have to identify yourself as black. Why do you always have to be the 'black ballerina.'" They want me to stop talking about color. They say, "Art sees no color." And I'm like, "Uhhhh." To me that's, you know, crazy. [Laughs.]

AG: Some people even claim your race has helped you get ahead in ballet, which is ...

MC: ... ignorant, if you know the ballet world at all. It's because I'm African-American that this is such a big deal. That's why it is historical.

AG: Can you recall the best advice you were ever given?

MC: A lot has come through former ballerinas. That is what is so beautiful about this art form. So much knowledge is passed down, and tradition is passed down. I've had so many former ballerinas that have taught and coached me, but one in particular was really influential and chose the exact right words to get me motivated and shape my future: Susan Jaffe.

AG: A former principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.

MC: Yes. I've had so many discussions with her about how to approach this next phase in my career. And back before I was a principal dancer, she would constantly warn me, "The words people say can have so much power over you if you let them."

AG: Why do you think she wanted you to hear that message?

MC: She wanted to keep me from letting other people's opinions define me. And that was a giant "wow" realization for me.

AG: Who were the people she was referring to?

MC: She was talking about everyone, the people in my profession, in the media, in the world.

AG: Ballet is known for being a mercilessly critical environment.

MC: It's true. When you are in a studio working with so many different ballet mistresses or masters and they are all giving you advice, the feedback can be overwhelming or negative or too much to take in. I had to learn that I have the power to take what works for me and to block out anything too damaging.

AG: Were you the sort of student who wanted to please everyone and do everything just right?

MC: Uh, yeah. [Laughs.] Absolutely. I had to learn to look at the person giving me the information. Some people will never be happy with what you do. For some, it will never be good enough. I had to figure out that anything you do needs to become about how you feel about the work and the job you're doing.

AG: That sort of internal autonomy is challenging for many women to summon, even highly successful ones. We tend to want to satisfy everyone, tick all the boxes.

MC: It is so interesting the power we hold as individuals to accept or not accept the way other people describe or define us. But I learned that you can choose to absorb the information you want to.

AG: And toss all the rest. Describe your perfect day.

MC: I would say ballet class in the morning. It always sets me up for a good day. Then brunch and shopping.

AG: For clothes?

MC: [Swoons.] Oh, clothes. Definitely clothes.

AG: What's your idea of hell?

MC: Not being able to do anything physical. Having to sit down for hours on end without the option of getting up and stretching. I've had meetings just sitting and sitting, and now I see what so many people, especially in America, have to endure with their jobs. I'd never experienced it. The longest time I ever sit in one place is on a long flight. I can't imagine what it's like to have a corporate job and be planted behind a desk for hours.

AG: Tell me more about your relationship with your body.

MC: I have a positive view of my body. But I also think it's important to know that everyone has days where they want to be better, and that's OK, too. I have to constantly remind myself that I own the power to make changes.

AG: In what way?

MC: Nothing outside of me creates my body. It is all about the decisions and choices I make. It's a good feeling. Everybody should know that they have that same power. Like, if maybe yesterday I don't feel terrific about something I ate or my lack of physical activity, today I can make a different choice. Or I can change how I feel about it.

AG: What is your favorite part of your body?

MC: I like my back.

AG: You've said even as a child you knew ballet was the world you were born to belong in. Back then dance made you feel less alone. How does dance make you feel now that you are an adult and a professional?

MC: When I dance I feel free. I feel like I am in another kind of universe. I shut off from the realities of everything that is happening and I kind of exist in this perfect, perfect world.

AG: As an athlete who is literally the best at what you do, whose game do you recognize?

MC: Stephen Curry!

AG: Do you see ballet as a sport?

MC: Ballet is an art form and it's athletic. But it's not a sport, in my opinion.

AG: What do you tell girls who have been wrongly discouraged from pursuing their dreams in the way you were, either because of body type, race, background or other obstacles thrown in their way?

MC: Have belief that everything is possible. No one fits into this perfect mold of what society has set out for us of what beauty looks like or achievement is.

AG: As was made so clear in your brilliant Under Armour campaign, where you elegantly schooled the world on the dangers of limiting any young woman's potential.

MC: I really do believe anything is possible with dedication and hard work. But it is equally important that you don't compare yourself to others. Only you should decide who and what you want to be.

The IMPACT25 is espnW's annual list of the 25 athletes and influencers who have made the greatest impact for women in sports. Explore the 2015 list at espnW.com/IMPACT25.