Allison's Book Bag

Ballet’s Big Breakthrough

Posted on: March 24, 2015

Misty Copeland is ballet’s first breakthrough star in decades. The only African-American soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, she’s also featured in a commercial for Under Armour; she’s danced with Prince on tour; written a bestselling autobiography; and is developing a new TV show. Her life, she tells CBS News, has gotten “absolutely insane, but in the best way.”


Copeland is an unlikely ballerina. One of six kids, she had an itinerant childhood in California as her mother married and remarried four times. Dancing became her escape in life.

When Copeland reached her teens, a teacher recommended she take ballet classes at the local Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro. Less than two years later, she entered and won her first competition at the L.A. Music Center.

Then at age eighteen, Copeland moved to New York to join the American Ballet Theatre. She shares with CBS, “That’s when I looked around me, and in a company of 80 dancers realized I was the only black woman. I felt completely isolated and alone.” She thought about quitting the company, but didn’t because “I had a responsibility to represent so many dancers that had come before me that aren’t recognized even to this day.”

In April of 2012, Copeland’s big breakthrough came when she was given the lead in Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” Her picture went up on the facade of the Metropolitan Opera. Landing a principal role with American Ballet Theater fulfilled a goal for Copeland, as well as being a huge step for the African-American community, which is why she continued to dance even when six stress fractures resulted in her left tibia.


American Ballet Theatre's Firebird, CBS News

American Ballet Theatre’s Firebird, CBS News

In her new children’s book, Firebird, Copeland seeks to inspire other young African-American dancers. The book is dedicated to her mentor Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American ballerina to tour the country. Wilkerson was pretty much chased out by the KKK in the 1950’s when touring the South. NPR reports that the KKK were threatening that she couldn’t perform in their theaters or stay in the hotels. As for the touring company, they were trying to have her blend in and not notice that she was a dancer of color.

Copeland herself has also experienced racism. According to NPR, she hears from critics that African-Americans are too muscular or aren’t lean enough. Usually they say, “Oh, they have flat feet so they just don’t have the flexibility that it takes to create the line in a point shoe.” When they meet Copeland in person, they’re usually surprised at how much she looks like a ballerina. Her mission is to help young females, who often feel broken from rejection, see a broader picture of what beauty is.

In Copeland’s picture book, she tries to show these girls by example how to reach soaring heights through hard work and dedication. By Copeland obtaining a principal role with the American Ballet Theater, she herself has proved how capable she is. That it doesn’t matter what body type she is or what color she is. She is a star.

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