For an indication of Misty Copeland’s determination, look for a YouTube clip from 1997, in which, hair pulled into a bun and wearing a black unitard, she dances en pointe to Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” “I’m 15 years old,” she confidently explains in voice-over. “I’ve been dancing for two years. I like the color purple, sunflower seeds, and Mariah Carey.” She adds that at an upcoming arts competition, she will dance a variation from Don Quixote, in which, she explains, “you’re supposed to flirt with the audience. And my goal is to just try to flirt with the judges and get them to smile.”
Copeland won that competition, by the way, and she can still flawlessly juxtapose a demure booty shake with a triple pirouette. At 28, she is not only a soloist at American Ballet Theatre—the first black woman in decades—but she also has a good shot at becoming its first African-American principal female dancer. “It’s not like she’s going, ‘Hey, look at me,’ ” says frequent partner Craig Salstein. “But she can be so ethereal, you just have to.”
Copeland has attracted attention practically from the moment she put on a pair of ballet slippers. “Ever since I started dancing, there was media around me—‘Oh, you’re a prodigy,’ ” she says. She grew up the fourth of six children in the seaside town of San Pedro, California, uninterested in ballet. Her heroine was gymnast Nadia Comaneci, and it was only at the suggestion of her junior-high school’s drill-team coach that she took a beginner ballet class—at the local Boys & Girls Club, “on the basketball court, in my gym clothes,” says Copeland. It was very late for an aspiring classical dancer, which speaks to what a natural she was. “I’ve always been very disciplined and organized, but I had never been part of anything organized,” she says. “I loved that with ballet I was learning something new every day.”
ABT hired Copeland when she was 18, and that’s when she became aware of just how unusual she is. “I had never, ever, thought, I’m black, and no one else looks like me,” she says. “At ABT, I realized, Oh, I do have this other thing that could work against me or for me.” At first she was learning principal roles for both contemporary and classical ballets, yet performing them only in modern pieces. “I always thought my talent would take me as far as I could go,” Copeland says. “And it was the first time I felt like maybe it wouldn’t.” Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, insists it was technical finesse not race that held her back, but by early 2007 he noticed “an edge that had been missing. I think the responsibility of her talent dawned on her.” That August, she was promoted from the corps.