A Recap: Misty Copeland in Conversation

by: Cathy Foreman

It’s Friday night in Chapel Hill. The fall session of classes has begun, and students are ramping up for Saturdays’ game when the Heel’s take on the Uni. Of Miami.  In the midst of it all, the Carolina Performing Arts brings us the incomparable Misty Copeland in Conversation. And for the night, she spoke to a packed house … upper and lower levels are completely full as hundreds of little girls, ballerina hopefuls, who idolize the woman who, for them, is the “stuff dreams are made of”.

With a quick overview of what the 15th season of the Carolina Performing Arts is about; we hear about its dedication to the “Creative Leadership of Women”. And then the speaker recognizes the abundance of women in attendance for this conversation with Misty Copeland by stating, “it’s so lovely that this audience is full of young women tonight.”  In addition to the performing arts, there is also an exhibit running entitled, “1971”, which just so happens to be the year that North Carolina ratified the 19th amendment … more about women. If you get a chance, catch one of the shows of the season and/or the exhibit.

The interviewer for the night, Susan Jaffe. Susan is a dancer and teacher, who spent a great deal of her career as a principal dancer at ABT for 22 years. She has had the pleasure of both dancing and coaching Misty. So, she has a relationship and a different purview of the woman and the artist. It is during her introduction of Misty that you understand just how significant Misty is, not just to the world of ballet, but to a movement … becoming an ICON for little black girls, black women and the black community, at large. Susan says, “already famous, 2009 was a turning point for Misty. She changed the dance world and was emboldened with enough star power to sell out the Metropolitan Opera House (MET) to a diverse crowd of people.”

Casually dressed in a flesh-toned sparkly top, tucked inside her black jeggings with brown/flesh-toned heels and her messy naturally curly locks, Misty Copeland enters stage left … looking like your home-girl that you may have been hanging with that night. I was impressed, by that alone. There was no pretense about her. You could tell she was and is 100% comfortable in her skin. If I didn’t already love her, she would have had me right then and there.

Misty Copeland at Carolina Performing Arts – image by cathy foreman

The conversation starts and Misty, almost, inherently references Victoria Rowell, widely known for her role as Drucilla Barber Winters on daytime’s The Young and the Restless. Victoria was a ballerina with ABT II.. Misty shares with us how Victoria was a mentor to her before her departure to the acting world. Misty saw Victoria as a kindred spirit; they had similar backgrounds and were both biracial. She says, “I saw myself in her.” And for all the hurdles and roadblocks she faced, Victoria, sadly would leave the world of ballet and take her talents elsewhere. Her exit from ballet would have her introduced to the world as Drucilla Barber. I remember watching Y&R with my grandmother after school and saw Drucilla dance. She was an illiterate black girl from the streets who loved ballet and would introduce ballet and the idea of black ballerina to me and millions of others.

Misty goes on to tell us how music played an integral part in her life. “It was the one thing I held on to. Hearing music was my escape. It was the one constant in my life.” she says. Before long she just started to move and would choreograph routines, in her closet … she jokes, she didn’t know it was called choreography. As a result, she decided she wanted to be the captain of the drill team. Much to her family’s surprise, as she was quite shy, she created ad routine to George Michael’s, “I Want Your Sex” and she took the captain’s spot. This moment would be the first of many wins for Misty, which all seemed to come organically, but rather quickly.

It was during her time at the Boys and Girls Club that Misty would be noticed by Cindy Bradley, Artistic Director of the San Pedro City Ballet and dance instructor. Cindy was seeking more diversity for her dance school and she thought she would find that at the Boys and Girls Club. It would appear that she did, indeed. Misty would go on to live, dance and train with Cindy for the next three years.

The fourth of six children, Susan would imply that Misty’s mother was somewhat jealous of her daughter and Cindy’s relationship. Misty corrects her by stating, “while there was some tension, I wouldn’t say there was jealously”, but it would cause Misty to leave Cindy and go to another school, led by Diane Lauridsen.

I want to take a moment and expound on this, on a personal note, as I can definitely relate to the tension and quite possibly the tinge of jealousy there may have been from Misty’s mom towards and of Cindy. While I do not have a daughter, I am very close to my son, now 27. This is funny because I was just talking about this earlier this week. When he was an adolescent, our home was not the party or the gathering house. He had a lot of friends and was always invited over to someone’s home for the weekend. He had this one friend where he spent quite a bit of time, that didn’t bother me so much. What did bother me, however, was that every Mother’s Day my son managed to be out of town with this family for the better part of five years. I never wanted to say anything because I wanted him to make a conscious decision and know that there was something quite wrong with that picture. It never happened. I’m not going to lie … I was jealous. I was super jealous. It’s Mother’s Day, if there was no other day that he should have been with me, it was that day and that’s how I felt. So, I can completely understand how and where there was tension and quite possibly may have been jealously towards Misty’s new coach – this woman with whom she was living and being given a sense of stability and opportunity/advantage that her mother was not able to … at that time.

During Misty’s time with Diane Lauridsen, she would be offered her first contract. Misty said, “I have to ask me mom”, to which her mom said no. Crushed, Misty was like, “but this is my dream… what do you mean no.” Her mom simply wanted her to enjoy her youth. She wanted Misty to go to prom and other normal things that teenagers do. Misty wasn’t trying to hear any of that. In fact, she said she didn’t even want to go to prom, but the decision was made, and she had to turn the contract down. She would have to wait a year and come back.

Upon her return, Misty’s body had changed, as many teenage bodies do, going through adolescence. It became obvious that the dance world who was so ready to embrace her just twelve months before, was now apprehensive because she had grown and put on weight. But this does not deter Misty. She worked hard and often. Securing roles that once again seemed to come to her organically, but much faster than normal. At the rate she was working and putting her still evolving body through the paces, Misty would encounter her first major injury, a stress reaction in her back. This injury would see Misty take yet another year off, wearing a back brace 23 hours of the day for six months. Doctors not really taking the time to evaluate and understand what she was going through, would place Misty on birth control pills thinking that if she began to menstruate, this would help her body shift and be more capable of handling the stress she we putting it through. Misty gained 10 pounds and when she ultimately returned to ABT, they were dismayed. She says they looked at her as if to say, “who’s that girl?” Dancers are expected to look a certain way, but no one tells or guides them in how to do it, let alone how to maintain it.

There’s a quote Misty made early in her career and it says a lot about where her mind was and her determination. “My goal is to become the first African American Principal Dancer with ABT.” She says that ultimately, the real goal was to be the best artist she could be.

Misty would be chosen to learn routines for some pretty major roles, but she always thought, “sure, okay, I’ll do it, but I’ll never get to perform it.” Of this she says, when I finally did receive the promotions, I was more mature and better able to handle the pressure. So, from this we see, that while things moved relatively quickly for misty, some things were still delayed; like her promotions as a soloist and principal. But she put in the work and boded her time, inevitably turning that quote into reality.

So, let’s talk about a few of Misty’s accomplishments. In the ballet world, Misty was a star well before she would be viewed so by the general public. A member of ABT since 2000 and a soloist, with them, since 2007, it wouldn’t be until 2009 when I and many more would become aware of Misty, by way of a dance to one of the world’s most famous artists, Prince. Misty tells us that it was one morning, when she was still waking up that she got a call from a girlfriend who worked with an organization who helped dancers find work, saying that Prince wanted to work with her. Misty, still waking up, was clueless and wanted to know, “Prince who? Prince of what country?” I can totally see how this conversation went as if it were between myself and one of my girlfriends. I imagine my girlfriend would have said, “wake yo’ punk ass up … PRINCE fool!  The Prince, you know Purple Rain Prince!” and I would have totally lost my shit. But of course, Misty was much more composed, or so she would lead us to believe. So, she says, “yeah, you can pass him my number” … as if this was an everyday occurrence. She tells us that a few moments later, Prince’s manager called her and says, “Prince will be calling you between this time and this time.” She compared it to, when you’re expecting a delivery, or a maintenance repair and they give you this block of time to when they will come. Misty was unbothered by this. In her mind, she still had work to do and her life to live so she got up and headed out to complete her tasks for the day. She said she did leave her phone in sight where she could see if he called. During her practice, he did indeed call and she stepped out to speak with him. He would go on to tell her that he had been trying to reach her for over a year. He had wanted her to dance in this video he was working on, but ultimately had to go with another dancer. Laughing, Misty says, she was like, “where have you been calling… I’ve been right here.” … the audience bursts out in laughter. That video, well yah, that video would be re-shot with Misty as he had initially wanted, and she would go on to tour with him, off and on for four years.

Misty Copeland with Prince on the Lopez Tonight Show

What did Misty learn from her experience and relationship with Prince? It’s okay to be an individual. He gave her freedom to create by improvising much of what she did during their first few performances. This made her a stronger a better dancer. She tells us, “he allowed me to do my regular job with the ballet and when I was free, I could dance with him.” It was the best of both worlds and he allowed space for her to have more confidence which, in effect, aided her when she returned full-time to ABT.

Enter Gilda Squire, Misty’s manager whom she met by way of Prince. Gilda was hearing about this black ballerina with ABT who had worked with Prince and wanted to know who she was and why had she didn’t know her. When she and Misty finally connected, Gilda worked for her on a pro bono basis. Misty tells us that their relationship blossomed quickly, and that Gilda saw that she needed to tell her story. There was a trial period wherein Gilda clearly did a phenomenal job resulting in Misty asking her to become her manager. Gilda would later say, “Misty saw in me what I didn’t see in myself and for that I will always be grateful.” And Misty echoed that same sentiment to the crowd.

Misty Copeland in Firebird …Image courtesy of cbsnews.com

Next up was “Firebird”. In what would become another major achievement and tremendously monumental moment for the dancer, Misty would find out that she landed the role via twitter. She was the first African American woman to perform this role. But let’s back up a moment. The circumstance and the surroundings by which she received this new is what’s most epic and memorable about this situation. Misty was with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. So, when she saw the announcement, she was surrounded by an extended family, of sorts; it wasn’t just the dance community, it was the black dance community. And when she read the news, they embraced her … they cried with her … they lifted her. She says of this support, “to be with and surrounded by the black community was amazing.” If you’re one of a few and are poised one of the greatest, being with people who look like and celebrate you when you hear this type of news … when you hear that you’ve made history, I imagine it being an ultra-surreal moment. Even writing this, I can visualize the outpouring of love she must have received in that moment, from the people who look like her and whose hopes and dreams are being realized through … her.

Misty would go on to sell out the MET to an overwhelmingly diverse crowd. The dynamic of the audience had shifted and that was due to Misty’s assignment. The rehearsals had been grueling … so much so that Misty incurred a number of fractures to her tibia, six to be exact. But Misty knew the cost of this appointment. She knew the magnitude of what this moment meant to the black community; it was huge. She felt she had to. So, in her mind, she thought even if I break my leg, I must do this. With the audience half full of black people, Misty performed. She tells us that someone asked, “Is that your family?” As she is telling the story, for me as a black woman, it was all too familiar, the presumption that we as a people don’t support each other… that well, that must be your family, because this many black people can’t be fans, because we don’t show up for events like this. A laughable thought. Her performance, so powerful and so significant that many cried. “It was a huge moment”, she says, “to have the black community come out and support. I had to give myself a pep talk … you’re gonna do this.”

Like most performers, the adrenaline takes over and any pain you were once feeling, all but escapes you. Misty tells us that after that 2012 performance she knew that was it and would eventually have to pull out after what was heralded as a “breakthrough performance”. Her injuries, the six tibia fractures, would see her sit out for yet another year. She was told she would never dance again by all but one doctor … and that would see her move forward with surgery. After a successful surgery, performed by a major athlete sports surgeon and giving herself time to rest and heal, two years later Misty would return in the double role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake with yet another stellar performance.

Misty Copeland in Swan Lake – Image courtesy of dancemagazine.com

We’re starting to run out of time, Susan says … so they moved on to a couple of her other accomplishments. April/May of 2015 would have us see Misty on the cover of the Times Magazine for their 100 most influential people issue. And just a month later, shortly after her Swan Lake opening, the long awaited and championed announcement happened on June 30th …the headline read Misty Copeland Is Promoted to Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theater.

In closing Misty tells us that opportunity to do these roles that had alluded black women, for so long is what pushed her. It would be six months before she truly realized the magnitude of her appointment, the impact of what that title meant and means to the black community.

Since that announcement, Misty has proven over and over again that she is a force to be reckoned with. She has gone on to write several more books and continue to dance. She is a staunch advocate for diversity in the world of dance and ballet and a huge proponent of self-care, providing insight into healthy eating and giving young girls positive reinforcements as to not fall victim to the trappings of conforming.

She is indeed an ICON Living.

Misty can next be seen:

  • 10/18/19 – Deuce Coupe – 7:30 pm – David H. Koch Theater – New York
  • 10/20/19 – Deuce Coupe – 2:00 pm – David H. Koch Theater – New York
  • 10/26/19 – Apollo – 8:00 pm David H. Koch Theater – New York
  • 02/13/20 – Giselle – 7:30 pm – Kennedy Center – Washington, DC
  • 03/26/20 – Giselle – 7:30 pm Durham Performing Arts Center – Durham