Ethereal bodies float along in wispy, tulle skirts and sparkly tiaras. At that moment, ballet dancers are the image of perfection. The hours, years and months of intense training are unimaginable as they plié and pirouette across the stage with ease.
Misty Copeland, 37, became the first African-American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in 2015. She faced her fair share of adversity on her rise to the top. Copeland started dancing at age 13, then seemingly too old to make it as an elite dancer. As a black woman, she was told that she'd never make it to a major company and that her muscular frame didn't fit the mold.
Now, the Kansas City-born and San Pedro, California-raised dancer is teaching ballet technique and artistry through the online educational platform MasterClass, which launched online Monday with 17 lessons.
"It's this fairy tale. That's the point of it -- to make it look effortless and to remove you from reality. But at the same time, we are real people," Copeland said. "There's a crazy process to get to the point of being in an elite company or being a principal dancer."
Ahead of Copeland's anticipated return to ABT's performances of "The Nutcracker" in mid-December, she discusses the athleticism of ballet, being considered a GOAT and bringing diverse people and outlooks to dance.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
espnW: Similar to what professional athletes experience, there's so much pressure for dancers to always be at the top of their game. How do you manage the stress of it?
MC: People just see you as a commodity or robot. They look at athletes, dancers and artists like they're not real. Like we don't have the same experiences and doubts as everyone else. It's like, "I'm spending money to see you. So you have to be what I want you to be." They'll have a different appreciation if they put themselves in our shoes. With all of that pressure, it's hard to perform at such a level.
espnW: What does an average work day look like for you?
MC: Dancers train like athletes. When ABT is in season, it's all day. We're in the ballet class in the morning, and then we're rehearsing through the night. I'm dancing for eight hours a day, and then I have everything outside of ABT. So that's interviews, speaking engagements, book signings and photo shoots. It's all exciting. And I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it. But it's a lot.
ABT has a very rigorous schedule -- I'd say more so than any major company in the world. And then on top of it, it's not just the physical art form. You're studying, doing research and trying to be the best actor you can be.
espnW: Why teach a MasterClass now?
Misty Copeland: To get people into theaters and to keep ballet relevant, we have to allow people behind the curtain. We need to show the work that goes into it. I wanted to share all aspects of myself and all that it takes to get to this place. I want to show that I am you -- I am a normal person. I didn't come from a privileged background. I wasn't handed this opportunity. And so, making it real and connecting with people will inspire them to carry on the art form.
espnW: What are you still learning?
MC: The beautiful thing about art and dance -- and ballet in particular -- is that there aren't any elements outside of yourself. Our bodies are our instruments. I've been a professional for about 20 years, and I still think, "What am I doing? What's going to happen tomorrow? What's going to happen in this show?" And I think that's what makes it so appealing. I'm constantly evolving. The amazing thing about ballet is that you're never going to get the same results. You're constantly challenged internally to reach a certain goal. And I've learned not to have too many daily expectations, as you never know which obstacles you'll face from day to day.
espnW: What will your legacy be?
MC: Having a voice outside of the ballet world. It has always been important for me to think about diversity in dance. One of the things I love about ballet is the tradition and history. And we should hold on to certain ballets. But I'm mindful of how race is depicted in the performances. I have the voice to say that I won't go on stage and perform as a slave girl. I've allowed myself to say, "These are the things I will do, and these are the things I don't want to do."
I'm also writing more books, and I recently started a production company. I want to be a voice for women of color in the ballet world and to a broader audience. I want to tell our stories truthfully and genuinely.
espnW: How does it feel to be considered in the GOAT conversation?
MC: It is such an honor, and it's incredible. And I give props hands-down to Under Armour for taking a risk [on an endorsement deal with me] and truly thinking of me as an athlete. Dancers should have endorsement deals. Dancers should be paid. Dancers should have insurance. They should not have to end their careers at 30 and then not have any preparation to do anything else. Dancers commit to this path at, like, 5 years old.
So, yes, I'm like, "Yeah, this makes sense. We should be given the same accolades and acknowledgment and respect as [pro athletes.]" But stepping back and looking at people -- like Jordan, Tom Brady, Steph Curry or Serena -- and then being in the conversation, I'm like, "That's crazy." Because I don't see myself in that way. These people seem like gods. And then I have to remind myself that they are all real people, too.