It’s not difficult to see why filmmakers would want to create a biopic of Misty Copeland’s story.
The plot seems tailor-made for Hollywood: A 13-year-old black girl wanders into a ballet class at her local Boys & Girls Club and turns out to be a prodigy. By 18, she joins American Ballet Theatre and sets her sights on becoming a principal, which would make her the first female African American to reach that level at the company. Several obstacles get in her way: weight struggles, career-threatening injuries, the isolation of being black in an overwhelmingly white world. But she perseveres. She seeks out coaches and mentors, and takes back-to-back classes on her days off. She hires manager Gilda Squire and starts landing book deals and national ad campaigns. Finally she’s given the ultimate test: dancing Odette/Odile at Lincoln Center. By this time she’s arguably the most famous dancer in the country. Fans fly to New York just to see her perform. Although she falters on the infamous 32 fouettés, the performance is a triumph, and soon after, it finally happens: She is promoted to principal. So what’s it like once you’ve gotten your picture-perfect Hollywood ending?
Photo by Jayme Thornton
What’s changed for you since becoming a principal?
The schedule is actually a lot less dancing on a daily basis, which is taking some getting used to! But it’s nice to be able to focus on just one part per ballet. The roles are more intense, and there’s a lot of pressure to uphold these standards that so many incredible dancers set over the 75-year history of this company.
Juliet surprised Copeland as her favorite role. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.
Any roles you’re particularly excited for?
Juliet. At this point in my career, it’s my favorite role I’ve ever danced. The experience of getting onstage…there’s no way of preparing for it other than getting out there and living the part as it’s happening. There aren’t very many dancing scenes for her; there’s two big pas de deux, but the bulk of it is acting. It was kind of a shock how much I enjoyed it. Acting turned out to be a strength of mine that I don’t think I knew about.
What will be in your new book, Ballerina Body?
It’s an inside look at all that it takes to get a dancer’s body. Most people, when they think “ballerina body,” have this perception that it’s unhealthy and eating-disordered and too thin. We in the dance world know that’s not the case. I feel like I’ve created my own ballerina body that works for me, and everyone can create their own version of that, their own best self. So it’s sharing different recipes that I cook, cross-training that I do, plus some of my mantras and experiences. Dancers have such strong minds and discipline. So many people can benefit from the tools we have to create a healthy lifestyle.
Are you working on any other projects right now?
I’m launching my own dancewear line called Egal this summer. I created it from my experience as a dancer who doesn’t have a stick figure, who needs support in her dancewear. I’ve been working on it for seven years, so it’s extremely exciting to finally have it be coming out.
Copeland says she never imagined she’d dance Odette. Photo by Darren Thomas/QPAC, Courtesy ABT.
How do you balance outside opportunities with your work at ABT?
I feel like it’s easier when you’re busy to just keep going. But my roles always come first. I only work with brands willing to work around my schedule. But I’ll sacrifice the time with friends, the dinners and hanging out. Right now, I have this amazing platform and I want to take advantage of it and do as much as I can with the time I have.
Has fame changed things for you?
It’s a bit shocking every time I go out onstage and the audience responds in a way that they didn’t four years ago. It’s like, Wow, I can’t believe all these people are so excited. But that’s amazing. I think every ballet audience should be that way.
Has that impacted your relationship to other ABT dancers?
Not to my knowledge! This career is too much work to bring that stuff into the studio with you. And there’s no way to avoid being humbled every single day when you walk into the studio and are surrounded by so much talent.
What’s been the highlight of these past few years?
The promotion. But also all the hard work that went into getting to that point. Beyond proving to Kevin McKenzie, it was about proving to myself that I’m capable of being a Swan Queen and being the Firebird and being Juliet.
One of Copeland’s first breakthroughs: the Firebird. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
Did you doubt that you could do it?
Absolutely. As a corps de ballet member doing Swan Lake, I never saw myself as the Swan Queen. Maybe that’s just a subconscious thing, not seeing many dancers who look like me doing those roles. You just think, Well, that’s just not my path.
What does it feel like knowing you’ve spurred today’s conversations about diversity in ballet?
It’s amazing. And as much negative feedback as I get from that and criticism, none of it matters. If I’m reaching 50 girls that feel like they have a possibility, if people are talking about diversity, that means the world to me. That is so much of my purpose. I think I’m a fine dancer, and I worked my butt off to get here. But what I stand for is so much more than just being a good dancer.
How do you deal with those dance bloggers and critics who post such vehement (and sometimes racist) criticism about you?
It’s really difficult for me not to read it. I’ve had to learn that I can’t let those things affect me. I can’t control how people feel about a subjective art form. Whether the comments are racist or it’s just their opinion, you have to brush it off. As hard as that may be, it’s the only way to not let it get in your head and take away from your ability to perform. All I can do is keep working on myself. And I can take away some of the things I see in those reviews—if it’s something I agree with—and say, “Let me work on that.”
Now that you’ve made principal, what are your goals?
It’s weird, my entire career has been striving for this moment, so to have reached this goal, it’s this strange feeling. It’s almost harder now. It’s a different battle, more internal. I just want to be better. I want to give an amazing performance every time I’m onstage. And to continue the diversity conversation.
Would you change anything about your career?
I really wouldn’t. You know, even all of the injuries I’ve had, I cannot imagine having developed into this dancer without those experiences. That feeling that I have to be onstage again, I have to get better so that I can be better than I was when I left. Even the 15 years it took before I was promoted to principal dancer—I wouldn’t change that. I feel like I’m just now reaching that peak where I’m ready.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT