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.
In 2009, Copeland got an early-morning phone call. “I was asked if Prince could have my cell number,” she says. “I was literally still waking up. ‘What? Prince who?’ ” The pop star, as gifted at mentoring female virtuosity as making music, was looking for a ballerina for his video of “Crimson and Clover,”and he invited Copeland to fly to L.A. the next day. “It was really just, ‘Be you, feel the music, just move,’ ” she says of the shoot. “I’m not used to that type of freedom. After every take, I’d ask him what he wanted, but he said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’ ” Last summer, Copeland performed with Prince in Nice, France, and appeared on selected dates of his Welcome 2 America tour. “I think he sees someone who’s free and spiritual,” she says, “and he’s expressed that he doesn’t see that in a lot of classical dancers.” (His appreciation extended to ABT in February, when he donated $250,000.)
As for Copeland’s day job, when the ABT season begins this month, she will have a principal part in Alexei Ratmansky’s new ballet, and will also reprise a signature pas de deux in Giselle. Ballet remains the primary focus for Copeland as well as Prince. “He has never said, ‘Don’t look so much like a ballerina.’ What’s No. 1 for him is that I am a ballerina.”
“Misty’s enormously talented,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “She has this physique any ballerina would kill for—these legs and feet. As she begins to get her port de bras [upper body] as under control as her legs and feet are, now the classical roles are not so far-flung for her.” Photos: Mark Seliger. Leotard by American Apparel; Styling by Christine Hahn; Hair by Tim Rogers; Makeup by Susan Houser for Chanel.
Part of the joy of watching Copeland onstage is seeing a ballerina with the kind of curves ballerinas usually don’t have.
“It’s hard being out there, knowing you’re going to be judged, and there have been times at ABT I’ve definitely been told to lose weight,” Copeland says. “But I’ve always stayed healthy and found the right regimen for my body. I don’t think it’s ever stopped me from doing a role. ABT’s generally been great about the fact that I don’t have a perfect ballet body.”
Prince “prefers to see me in the really classical stuff, with the tiara and a tutu,” Copeland says laughing. “He saw me do a gig where I was doing Sugarplum in the Nutcracker, and he absolutely loved that.”