It was a regular Thursday. I kept forgetting that I’d get to see someone so inspirational speak later, someone who had become a legend in the world of dance. It was clear when I arrived at the Chicago Humanities Fest event, shuffled into the First Methodist Church of Chicago, hurried up the stairs, and picked one of the last remaining seats, that she had inspired more than just me. She’d inspired this whole room. The whole world, really.
Misty Copeland is a principal ballet dancer for the American Ballet Theatre—one of, if not the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. Her achievement recognizes not only the grueling, immersive lifestyle of ballerinas as they strive to reach the pinnacle of their careers, but also the challenging of traditional ideas in the ballet world—namely, via the fact that she is the first African-American principal ballet dancer at ABT.
What Copeland touched upon many times throughout her talk with Robin Robinson was how this title that had become synonymous with her own name shouldn’t have been. Where were people of color in the ballet world? She answered that question: Copeland has persevered throughout her career, broken through existing constructs, and has worked tirelessly to ensure that the ballet landscape is diversified, and rightfully so.
Promoting her newest book, Ballerina Body, Copeland was absolutely radiant. It stemmed from a place of total security and confidence. But, how she appears today is not how it always was. Like us, she has insecurities. She felt vulnerable too, and growing up was still tough. She noted she had no idea what she was as an adolescent, and choreographed dances to the songs she heard in music videos. This allowed her to feel like something was all her own.
“It was hard for me to exist with so much chaos. Dance was the only time I felt in charge and powerful,” Copeland noted wistfully. When she spoke to dance and her career, she exuded a glow of someone who worked so hard for something—in the face of adversity, self-doubts and hardship. Someone who knew that great achievement could only come from surpassing every boundary that came her way. And she did.
As she found classical ballet, Copeland benefited from the art form. The discipline allowed her to feel organized and calm within the hectic structure of her life. She never escaped the criticism: Copeland was told various times to “lengthen,” signifying that her body type just wasn’t right for ballet. Nevertheless, she pressed forward.
“I didn’t know the lack of diversity in classical ballet. It was the first place where I felt beautiful. There’s a hidden language telling dancers of color they don’t have the right bodies for ballet, but they meant the right skin color,” Copeland stated. With her elite status in the ballet world, Copeland has used her title for nothing but good—advocating for those she believes can eradicate the status quo. Today, a big shift is occurring in the dance world, whereas before not enough dancers of color were climbing the ranks. Copeland attributes this to diversity initiatives not getting to the right people, or if they were, not allowing the right people to progress to the next level of training.
Copeland noted that she wants to be an inspiration to young dancers, because “seeing someone who looks like you on the stage is so powerful.” She’s begun Project Plié, a powerful diversity initiative that starts with underprivileged communities, scouts talent, and gets them scholarships. “We need to keep this conversation going. It’s a part of me.”
Amid the discussion of challenging social constructs, Copeland discussed her new book. At first glance, I thought it was another cookbook in a saturated market, with some exercises thrown in. But, I learned it was so much more. First, there’s no calorie listing on any of the recipes. It’s not about that. Copeland noted that it’s infinitely important to recognize how you feel. If she wants ice cream, she’ll eat ice cream. If she wants a pizza, she’ll eat a pizza. But it’s all about balance, and finding what works for you. She spoke of ritual and meditation—finding those focal points that become grounding for you. She encouraged us to set goals, visualize them, and create vision boards.
Copeland had her share of struggles in dance, even after her rising status was acknowledged. At age 19, she broke a bone in her back. It took her over a year to recover. Doctors told her she would never dance again. But she kept seeing doctors, and found one who told her a different story. She began doing floor barre, where you simulate dance exercises while lying on your back. During her time in the hospital for surgery, she met someone who joined her in floor barre during her recovery, and encouraged her to keep going.
Today, at 34, she’s as successful as can be—but stays humble, too. She showed us some stretches we could do at the office, and kicked off her heels in the process. She shared her affinity for Prince, and waxed poetic about his life-changing music. She answered questions posed by Chicago Public School students, when she discussed a time when she thought she would give up, but kept going. “If I don’t push for what I want or push for change, then what am I doing?”
The one-hour talk was inspirational and moving. We were reminded that each person’s authentic self is different, and that’s something to be celebrated. The gifts within us are what propel us forward, and what allow us to grow after we’ve shared them with the world. Through a discussion about her trials and tribulations, her wellness journey, and how she makes the most of every minute, I was reminded that life is nothing if not a journey full of passion. And if it’s not, what are we doing here? “l have one body. This is it. And with what I do for a living, it’s everything,” Copeland stated. She’s right. And with each of us possessing our unique gifts, we ought to listen.