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Misty Copeland makes a point of sharing her art with unlikely ballet fans

August 27, 2014 at 6:48 PM EST
Misty Copeland is only the second African-American woman ever to reach the level of soloist at American Ballet Theatre. Now the author of a new memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” she shares the story of her improbable rise from poverty to the spotlight, as well as her desire to open the artform to more dancers from all economic backgrounds and races.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight:  Classical dancer Misty Copeland is only the second African-American woman ever to reach the level of soloist at American Ballet Theatre and the first in 20 years.

She recently performed here at the Kennedy Center in Washington.  And while she was here, she sat down with us to share the story of her rise from poverty to the spotlight and her desire to open the world of ballet to all economic backgrounds and races.

She began by reading from her new memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.”  In it, she recounts the evening she danced the title role in Stravinsky’s “Dance of the Firebird.”

MISTY COPELAND, Author: “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina”: Outside, the largest crowd I have ever seen waits.  Prominent members of the African-American community and trailblazers in the world of dance who have seldom received their due are here tonight, but I know I will also dance for those who aren’t here, who pass the Metropolitan Opera House, but cannot imagine what goes on inside.

They may be poor, like I have been; insecure, like I have been; misunderstood, like I have been.  I will be dancing for them, too.  I run onto the stage and feel myself transform.  As I approach center, my flock parts, leaving me to stand alone.  There’s a brief second of silence before the audience erupts into applause once more, clapping so loudly I can barely hear the music.  And so it begins.

I’m Misty Copeland.  And I’m a soloist with American Ballet Theatre.

I didn’t come from a background that would’ve introduced me to this world in any way.  I didn’t come from a family with money.  I had no knowledge of the ballet world.  I had never heard classical music before.

But I think, above all of that, just starting at 13 and only training for four years before I was accepted into American Ballet Theatre, America’s national ballet company, I think is the most unlikely of it all.

I took a free ballet class at a Boys and Girls Club surrounded by other kids that had similar backgrounds to me that were all older.  And I was selected to come to my teacher’s school on a full scholarship.  It was the first time in my life that that had been presented to me, that I had no limits and that I could dream.  That wasn’t something I grew up in my home atmosphere having.

I remember the first time I sat on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House.  I was 19 years old, still struggling to find my place in ABT’s Corps de Ballet.  I traced the marley floor with my pointe shoes, and imagine myself on the stage, not as a member of the corps, but as a principal dancer.  It felt right.  It felt like a promise.  Some day, somehow, it was going to happen for me.

The ballet world, I don’t think is an art form that is quick to change or to adjust or evolve.  ABT and most classical companies are about kind of following this slow and steady process of proving yourself and moving up through the ranks.  And because I was so able and capable of mimicking and doing movements that I had never done before, I could just see it and imitate it, choreographers wanted to work with me.

You just have to be given the opportunity and just give everything to it and dive into it and really commit to these roles, which, with these opportunities I have been given, with Firebird and Swanilda, Gamzatti, all of these parts that I really just — I took care with all of them because I have so much respect for this art form.

The ballet world, I think, is so similar to theater and drama, and you’re becoming a character.  I mean, it’s not you out there on the stage.  You know, there is no role called Misty that I am playing.  We’re portraying a character.  And even if you are in the Corps de Ballet, you know, why can’t there be a beige swan, a brown swan, a black swan out there?

So I understand the importance of me having a voice and exposing people beyond the typical ballet world to this art form.  I think it saved my life.  And I want to introduce it to more people.  And coming full circle, that’s something that I’m trying to do now, is to give back to those communities through Boys and Girls Clubs, being an alum.

To invite people into my world as it’s happening, I think, is really amazing.  To have grown men that have never seen a ballet in their life look at me and see a woman that they can relate to, someone who looks like their sister, their daughter, their mother, and to say, well, I’m going to put my child in that because they can see themselves through you, I think it’s creating a completely different path for these people that never saw themselves in this world.

And to watch me still growing in it and on my path, I think, is really powerful.

GWEN IFILL: Misty Copeland will be performing with the American Ballet Theatre next month in Australia.