Misty Copeland: Walking has always been a way for me to escape, kind of breaking away from that, that structure that I’m so used to, which is in a box covered with mirrors, the ballet studio. And movement is always an escape for me, and walking is kind of a more subtle dance form.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives. Misty Copeland broke barriers when she became the first Black woman to be promoted to principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. On this walk, Misty trades her busy Manhattan neighborhood for nature trails in the Bronx. She shares how overcoming adversity has given her a platform to redefine what a ballet dancer looks like.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
Misty Copeland: We are in nature right now, a lot of greenery, a nice way to step outside of the city and just feel a part of the earth, which I feel like is a nice way for me to reset my mind and body.
I’m one of six children and, literally, my nickname was Mouse because I was so shy and never really expressed any opinions or was really driven towards anything in particular.
It was… It was definitely the lowest point in my childhood when my family moved into a motel. We were kind of jumping back and forth between different motels throughout that year, just, you know, wherever we could afford. And there were six of us and my mother, and we ended up settling for the longest period of time, stretch of time, in Gardena, California. It wasn’t a very safe area. There were a lot of, you know, sketchy restaurants and gas stations and bars and liquor stores. And, behind the scenes, secretly, you know, I would find private space, and I would love to listen to music. Music was such a big part of our household. Music became this escape from the, the life that my family was living, which was pretty hard.
Around the age of 12, I decided that I was going to audition for the drill team at my middle school, which was a huge shock to my entire family since I was so introverted. And my sister was actually on the drill team, and my mother was a professional cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs. So I decided I was going to follow in their footsteps, and that was really, I think, the first time I had any goal set about what I wanted to do. I decided I was going to audition for the captain of the drill team. So I ended up making my own choreography as well as learning a full number, and I actually made captain.
Once I got, you know, into that routine of, of being a leader and leading this team, the drill team coach pulled me aside, and she said, “I think that you have a lot of natural ability, and I think that it could go beyond, you know, dancing at school.” So she recommended that I take a free ballet class that was being offered at my Boys & Girls Club, which I already was a member of. Me and my five siblings all had been members for many years because my mother needed a place for us to be safe after school while she was working many jobs.
I remember being in the gym a lot because my brothers played basketball. So I would always be in there, but it was the first time I was in there and there wasn’t basketball going on. And instead, there were ballet barres on the court, and the teacher, Cynthia Bradley, was there with a group of kids who she was trying to bring into her school on full scholarship who wouldn’t have had the opportunity or exposure to classical dance. So, a week or so went by where every day I was told to go in and take this ballet class. And instead I would hide up in the bleachers and just watch from afar. And I think she gave me a couple of days, you know, so she didn’t kind of scare me off completely.
And finally, the teacher, Cynthia, came to me, negotiating with me because I didn’t have the right attire. And she was like, “I don’t care. Put on your gym clothes.” I remember going into the locker room, putting on my gym clothes, and just like, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening.” And I held on to the barre, and she started manipulating my body. And I remember her putting my foot up by my ear, and she asked me to hold it there, you know, just with pure muscle, and I did. And she was just blown away by one class, and she said that she thought I was something special and that she’d never seen before. And she started using the word prodigy, which I’d never heard.
Finally the teacher, Cynthia, said, “Can I please have your mother’s number?” and that was another step that I just was embarrassed to take. I knew that it was something that I, I didn’t want to bother my mother with. She had so much happening, and, you know, ballet was the farthest thing from her realm of what she needed to be prioritizing. You know, she had six kids she needed to keep safe and off the street and in school and food on the table.
So, eventually, I gave in and gave her the number, and they talked. And there was some back and forth. My mom eventually said yes, and we spent a couple of months with having to find rides to get me from school to Cynthia’s ballet school. And, I mean, I grew immensely, but it just became way too much of another responsibility for my mother and the people around us to have to think about. So my mom said I was going to have to quit, and I remember giving Cynthia that news, and it was devastating, I think, for both of us.
But I remember her saying, “Well, at least, can I drive you home?” And my heart just sank because no one had ever seen where I lived. I gave in, and I just said, “You know what? This is probably going to be the last time I see her. So she can see where I live, and then I’ll never have to see her again.”
She ended up driving to the motel, and she pulled in, and just her mouth was open. She could not believe that that’s where I lived and that I’d never said anything about it. And she dropped me off, and 10 minutes later she came back, knocked on the door. And she spoke with my mother quietly at the door, and I couldn’t hear anything they were saying. And a couple of minutes later, my mother turned around and said, “Cynthia is asking if you will live with her and train intensely because she thinks you have what it takes to become a professional.”
I just… I couldn’t believe it, and we agreed that I would do it. I packed up my backpack with the little things I had, clothes and some books, and went on my way. I ended up living with her for three years, and that was the start of my ballet career.
I grew in leaps and bounds from being a part of the ballet world and having that experience of, of learning in a way that I think so many kids need to. I got better in school. I, I was more social. I could communicate better. And I think most people wouldn’t connect those things. Like, oh, they think of someone just in a studio, prancing around in a tutu, and that… you know, that’s kind of the extent of it. But I garnered all of these skills and tools because of ballet that allowed me to be a better speaker, a better communicator, more empathetic, more loving, more trusting. And I think that’s how I have developed into the woman that I am today.
I think one of the most surprising things for my family to see me do… Like, Madison Square Garden with Prince, the Metropolitan Opera House with ABT, they’re like, “Yeah, okay.” But they see me speak in front of thousands of people, and that’s when they think like, “Wow, who is this girl? This is… We never thought in a million years that this is who Misty would grow into.” And I feel like it all started there on that… that basketball court, and ballet really gave me a voice and a way for me to express myself.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
I remember being in Tokyo. At the time, I was on tour with American Ballet Theatre. And I remember getting called into the director’s office when we were in Japan and him sharing the news that choreographer in residence had mentioned that he wanted me to learn the lead in his new creation of the ballet “The Firebird.” And I remember just being over the moon because, as a 29-year-old, that’s not common that you’d get an opportunity so late in the game to be starring in, you know, a full-length classical ballet as the principal dancer, especially as a Black woman.
“The Firebird” is an old fairy tale, and the Firebird herself, the character, is this mythical creature that’s a bird. She flies. But she has these kind of magical powers. So she has feathers on her and, say, if… if one is plucked from her, it can ward off evil, protect people. So, she’s a good guy, but she’s wild, and she’s free, and no one can really tame her.
It’s one of those iconic roles, you know, when you think of “Swan Lake” or Juliet in “Romeo & Juliet” or Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty.” It’s one of those old classics that, you know, has been in the ballet repertoire for a hundred-plus years.
I had gotten the news in Japan, and it was really exciting, and then ABT had the summer off. And a lot of dancers, in their off-time, will work as guest artists with other companies or travel and do gigs. And so Dance Theatre of Harlem, at the time, invited me to come work with a group of Black dancers and kind of get the energy going again.
And, and it was during that time that I remember scrolling through Twitter, and this news story came up that I had been actually cast to perform one of the three principal dancers that would perform the lead in “The Firebird.” And I remember just tearing up, and the dancers there crowding around me and just saying, like, “What’s going on? Is everything okay?” And I said, “I’ve been cast to perform ‘The Firebird.’” And we all started crying. I was so grateful and thankful for that moment and to share in that moment with other Black dancers from my community the first time I was getting that chance was unbelievable.
We got to New York City for the big spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, and there was the big billboard that is displayed behind the fountain in the front of the Met. And it was me in “The Firebird,” and I just remember it being another one of those moments where it was like, “That’s not me. That’s a Black woman on the front of the Met.”
And it was an opportunity for us to really invite the Black community in, where a lot of them never have felt accepted or that is a place that they belonged because they didn’t see themselves represented.
I had been experiencing a lot of pain for months in my shin, in my left tibia. And I knew in the back of my mind that I had to get through that performance in New York City in order to prove myself and that I’m capable of carrying the entire company on my shoulders in a full-length classical work.
The music that the Firebird dances to is really wild and fast.
And I run out onto the stage. And all I can see is a sea of black, which in most, you know, big concert theaters, you can’t see the audience. But I didn’t need to see the audience. The music stopped. And there was a moment of just silence.
But of course the audience erupted into applause.
[APPLAUSE AND CHEERING BEGINS]
And, you know, knowing, of course, beforehand, leading up to the performance just how much of the Black community was going to be there and were there was enough for me to get through this performance with my injury and the pain in my leg.
[END APPLAUSE AND CHEERING]
I got through my first performance, which was an unbelievable experience that was out-of-body, having I think more than half of the Met full of Black and brown people there to support one of their own. But I knew, at the end of that performance, that I couldn’t do any more. Like, if I were to continue dancing on my… my leg and jumping on it, I think I knew deep down inside, my shin could’ve snapped. I found out I had six stress fractures in my tibia, and three of them were dreaded black-line fractures. So they’re almost full breaks through the bone.
So the next morning, I went into the theater, and I told my artistic director that I would have to pull out of the season. I remember walking past the Met and my poster still hanging on the front and, you know, another dancer filling in for me. And after all of these people had flown in from all over the world to come support me, and, you know, it’s really disappointing. But I remember walking and just walking, even though I wasn’t supposed to. But I was like, “I’m going to get surgery, anyways. I might as well just enjoy these moments and walk.”
I remember walking past a Starbucks, and this guy comes out screaming my name. It was a friend of mine I hadn’t seen for years. We stood on the streets talking for like 30 minutes, and him sharing with me about an organization called MindLeaps in Rwanda, how incredible the children were there and how they used art and dance to introduce them to education and, and schooling. They bought a house in the local village and turned it into a dance studio with a kitchen where they could feed the children and have them bathe outside. And they bring these kids in from the street. They invite them in by playing music and letting them dance, and the more that they saw consistency with each student being able to show up every day and commit to coming, then they started to introduce them to all of these different courses connected to their education.
I remember finally making it to Rwanda.
Wherever I am in the world, no matter what I’m traveling for, I make sure that I have time every morning to give myself a ballet class or to take a ballet class. And so, at MindLeaps, they let me use the ballet studio there in the morning before all the kids came just to be alone and to work on my training and technique. There are windows right along the side of the studio, opposite the mirrors. And I was at the barre, and I look outside, and there had been a young kid that was sweeping the floor outside. And I looked up, and he was mimicking everything I was doing. And he was doing pliés, and he was doing tendus, and… and I was just stunned by it, you know, to see someone in this atmosphere with who knows the amount of trauma and just so much that he’d experienced in his life and just found this moment to escape. The boy outside’s named Ali, and he ended up being one of my kids that I sponsored to go to boarding school. It was like seeing a reflection of myself sitting in those bleachers and, and someone taking me in.
What these children got out of me being there was, I think, seeing someone who had come from a similar experience, you know, clearly not as impoverished as living in Rwanda, but someone who had become a whole person because of my experiences and someone who was strong enough to give back. And to me, like, that’s the most successful thing I can think of, you know, in those situations. It’s not about what I’ve done, who I’ve danced with, where I’ve performed. It was setting an example and bringing opportunities to people in those situations.
And I remember waking up to a text from a girlfriend of mine, and it simply read, “Prince wants to know if he can have your number.” And I was so confused. First of all, I thought she meant a prince, like of a country. And so I called her immediately, and I was like, “What are you talking about?” And she let me know that Prince had spent a year, I guess, looking for me, trying to get in touch with me.
And, within a day, I was on the phone with him, and he expressed that he was shooting a music video for his remake of the song “Crimson and Clover.” He flew me out a couple of days later.
I arrived on the set the following day and had no idea what I was going to do on that set. I… I’m all ready, and I’m dressed, and Prince walks in with his adorned cane and introduces himself and pretty much just sits quietly and lets me improvise and create my own choreography and movement right there on the spot to his music. We had dinner that night and, and just shared our similar experiences as children, as children that, you know, were very artistic and kind of outsiders. And he invited me to tour with him.
He said, “You’ll just come out and improvise to these songs, and when I walk on, then you can just kind of dance your way out.” It was the first time that I ever was given that freedom and responsibility as a performer. The ballet world is definitely not structured in that way. Everything is so coordinated and rehearsed, and dancers aren’t really given a voice or allowed to have an opinion.
And I just remember performing with him for the first time for his “Welcome 2 America” tour. It was his first American tour in a very long time. First night, I was dancing to “The Beautiful Ones,” and I came up from the stage. And I remember starting my solo, and my knees almost buckled when he got on the mic during it and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Misty Copeland.”
And I was like, “What?”
You know, just, as dancers, we’re constantly told to be so grateful for any opportunity given to you and that you shouldn’t be compensated, you know, all of these things. And so, you know, you… I assumed I’m Prince’s dancer, but that’s not how he saw me.
He saw me as an artist he was performing with, and I think that night was definitely a huge step for me as an artist and as an individual. Prince really showed me being unique is powerful, and I don’t think I had ever recognized that. And I think it was my time with Prince that I really became my own person and my own woman.
[SOUND OF CAR PASSING]
New York City, I love the chaos of it and the speed, but it’s nice to have just a setting change and a pace change, and all I can really hear is the wind and… and birds and not cars and horns and sirens.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
This song has been something that has really gotten me through tough times. Just the lyrics and her emotion when she’s singing it, I think has allowed me to find my peace of mind. The song is “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” by Lauryn Hill.
[MUSIC - “I GOTTA FIND PEACE OF MIND” BY LAURYN HILL]
This song has such a beautiful representation of Black love. I think it’s just a beautiful interpretation that Black people can have intimate, loving, caring relationships where the two partners are equal. And I feel like this song is a really good representation of that. And the song is “Best Part” by H.E.R.
[MUSIC - “BEST PART” BY H.E.R.]
I think, often, seeing a performance or seeing dance and movement to a song makes you hear it differently, and that’s how I felt about this song.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
I chose this song with the motivation of seeing dancers performing to it. There was something so sultry and soulful and passionate about it, and I love that kind of music… moody and that you can kind of just sit back and embrace the mood that you’re in, and this is a good one for that. This is “Free” by 6LACK.
[MUSIC - “FREE” BY 6LACK (CLEAN VERSION)]
It’s been such a beautiful day to step outside and reflect on so many things that have inspired and motivated and guided my journey. Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.