Misty Copeland Redefining The Boundaries Of Possbility In Classical Ballet


If you haven’t heard of Misty Copeland, you are living under a rock. But seriously, this woman is not only talented and successful, she is blazing trails and breaking down barriers like no one else in her profession. The 31 year-old Kansas City native (now based in new York) is African America, German and Italian by descent, and only started doing ballet 13. In the world of professional dance, that’s considered “too old”.

The other thing about Misty is that on paper, she shouldn’t be as successful as she has been as a ballerina. She is the first black female soloist at the American Ballet Theatre company in over 20 years, and only the third in its entire history. Needless to say there is a lot of pressure that comes with being a “first” anything, especially as a woman.

Yet she has gone from strength to strength and allowed her talent to speak for itself. She has appeared in a music video for artist Prince, and was recently one of the featured celebrity in underwear brand Under Armour for their “I Will What I Want” campaign targeting the empowering of young women, a change from the male oriented brand it is usually know as.

Misty Copeland is an anomaly, and that is why we love her! She is living proof that fitting into the narrow boundaries of society is not always the direct path to success or happiness. Being told “no” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing something. Misty spoke to radio station NPR about the significance of her presence in American ballet, and how she cares more about the young girls she is inspiring along the way, rather than than what critics say about her.

Aside from her race being something out of the ordinary in the ballet world, her body type also had many in the industry second-guessing. All of this inspired her to write a children’s book called ‘Firebird’ which was named after a ballet production of the same name.

“The firebird symbolizes a lot for me and my career. It was one of the first really big principle roles that I was given an opportunity to dance with the ABT. And it was a huge step for the African American community within the classical ballet world. For them to come out and support me in the way that they did…was a step in the change of direction that ballet is going,” she says.

The book is dedicated to Raven Wilkinson, the first African American ballerina to tour the country, who Misty says was abhorred by the public (including the KKK) simply because of her race during the 1950s.

She goes on to tell NPR that even today, being an African American woman in the world of classical ballet is still difficult.

“I think the reason is racism, and not wanting to change this very traditional art form that has been successful in the way it is for so long, and it’s hard to be the one that stands out…”

One of the ways the industry has managed to ethnic minorities was to focus on their body shape.

“I think that goes along with being close-minded because I don’t think every African-American or Latino have the same body type. That’s been one of the excuses, saying that African-Americans are too muscular or just aren’t lean enough.”

“When people meet me in person, they’re usually surprised at how petite I am because there’s just [an] idea that because I’m black I just look a certain way.”


Misty explains that many people hear from critics that she is too big or muscular, but when they meet her in person find out how petite she actually is. She feels it is sad that she still has to put up with narrow-mindedness today, but accepts it is part of her job and how she is breaking down barriers.

“My mission, my voice, my story, my message is not for them. I think it’s more important to think of the people I am influencing and helping to see a broader picture of what beauty is.”

In her book Firebird, Misty is unashamedly spreading the message to young women that not only can they do anything despite opposition, but they WILL. The concept of optimism was something very important for her to convey.

“Young kids especially need to hear those words, because I think that if you say “maybe” or “it’s possible,” I think it’s very easy for them to interpret that as “no, it’s not.” There are so many opportunities beyond these top companies that they can be a part of the ballet world in some way, and so I think its necessary for them to hear that.”

“I’ve seen it happen with these girls that come to me, and some of them are really broken because they’ve been told “no” so many times. They’re making it happen for themselves.”

The message is this: if you are determined enough you will succeed, beyond yours and anyone else’s narrow expectations and the societal boundaries that confine far too many of us.

Oh, and don’t think just because Misty is 31 she will retire any time soon. She plans to continue her pioneer run and keep dancing at least for the next decade. Today, if you are facing an uphill battle, don’t look at it as something you may possibly get through, but as something you will conquer.



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