Ballet Dancer Misty Copeland

The history-making dancer on becoming the first black principal ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre, her charity work, and the theater’s latest production of “The Nutcracker.”

Misty Copeland rose to stardom despite not starting ballet until age 13 and, by age 15, was winning awards. She joined the Studio Company of the American Ballet Theatre (one of the three leading classical companies in the U.S.) in 2000, became a member of the corps de ballet in 2001 and was appointed a soloist in 2007. She has been named to the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition and co-wrote an inspiring memoir, Life in Motion, that has been optioned for adaptation as a feature film. She also co-authored the award-winning children's book Firebird. In June 2015, Misty was promoted to principal dancer, making her the first African-American woman to ever be promoted to the position in the company’s 75-year history.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with prima ballerina, Misty Copeland, who made history earlier this year by becoming the first African American female principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theater. Named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, she joins us to talk about her skyrocketing stardom in the dance world and ABT’s new production of the classic Christmas ballet, “The Nutcracker”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with ballet dancer Misty Copeland coming up right now.

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Tavis: So pleased to welcome Misty Copeland back to this program. To say that she has had a big year would be the understatement of the year. She, of course, made national headlines this June by becoming the first African American female principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre and drew huge crowds with her Broadway debut in “On The Town”.

In November, the prima ballerina launched the MindLeaps girls program in Rwanda which we’ll talk about tonight, which uses dance to prepare disadvantaged youth for school. Her contributions within and beyond the dance world rightfully led to Time magazine putting her on that Time 100 list.

And if all that weren’t enough, you can catch her performing in the American Ballet Theater’s new production of “The Nutcracker” which premiers today at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa and runs through December 20. Ah, what a year [laugh]. Before we start our conversation with Misty, though, first a look at a clip of Misty performing in “The Nutcracker”.


Tavis: Do I have to talk? Can’t I just watch? Can’t I just watch you do more of that? You are so graceful.

Misty Copeland: Thank you.

Tavis: So I should say welcome back home to California.

Copeland: Yeah. I’m back home and I’m back here. It’s been four years.

Tavis: Yeah, don’t remind me. Well, you’ve been busy, though.

Copeland: Yeah.

Tavis: You know you always have a home here.

Copeland: Thank you.

Tavis: Obviously, you’ve done well, but what do you make of the transition that you did in fact make years ago from California, from the west coast to the east coast, to New York?

Copeland: It’s so weird to think about it now. It’s been 15 years now that I’ve been in New York and, coming back here, nothing changes. It feels like home always when I come back. But it took me a little bit of time to adjust, but I feel like I’m at home there too.

Tavis: Speaking of home, how were you feeling at your home at the theater company there?

Copeland: ABT, American Ballet Theater, is all I’ve known. It’s been my dream from the time I discovered what ballet was and they’re my family now. And it’s incredible to have had this journey and this rise as I’ve been with the company and to have them with me from the beginning and supporting me through this past year. And I just want to bring them and ballet with me on every platform that I have. I think that ballet deserves the recognition and respect that I’m getting now. They’ve always deserved that.

Tavis: There are two sides to that. Let me take one side at a time. You’ll take my point here, so I’m not trying to cast any aspersion on the year that you had. But are there concerns inside ABT or elsewhere, maybe concerns inside your own company, your own brand, that you got so much stuff going on that you might end up being distracted? That’s a lot to do in one year. I mean, you’ve done it well and you’re still looking beautiful on stage, but how are you managing all that?

Copeland: I can definitely see how someone would maybe think that from the outside. But something that’s so rare and special and different about the classical ballet world, and you don’t really get to witness someone with this type of exposure, knowing all that it takes to be a ballerina, that there are no shortcuts.

There are no taking days off. There are no distractions. If I had that, I physically wouldn’t be capable of going onstage and performing live theater. It’s extremely demanding. I have to be in ballet class every day.

So if anything’s being sacrificed, it’s my time with friends or with family because, you know, ballerinas have such a short career that this is the time. And I understand the power that I hold in getting the exposure that I have. I think everyone should know about the classical ballet world, be educated in it. It’s beautiful and it’s given me this life.

Tavis: Mentally. I hear how you’re managing it physically. You got to be there for rehearsal every day, no matter what. Mentally, how are you processing and handling all that’s coming at you so swiftly, it seems? That is funny, though. You’re in a company for 15 years and then, woosh, everything sort of happens.

Copeland: You know, taking it one day at a time. But being in ballet class, being on the stage, being surrounded by my peers at American Ballet Theater every day, keeps me so humble and grounded. Being in ballet class, I feel, is like this meditation for me every morning. I can push aside all the interviews and being on my phone and social media.

It’s something that I think every child should experience. Put the phone down, be in an environment where it’s you focusing solely on every part of your being, the music and movement, and I think that’s kind of the safe haven for me. It’s been that from the time again that I discovered dance at 13.

Tavis: Let me ask you a question that is about a journey that you, obviously, are on now and a journey that I’ve taken in my own way, nowhere near the level that you’ve taken, I admit. But I was the first African American to have his own daily show on NPR, the first African American to have his own nightly show on PBS, and we ain’t that old. So it shows how far we still have left to go, but it also shows, you know, how–anyway, you get my point.

So I know what it feels like to be identified initially as the first African American to do this. Now Barack Obama is at a whole other level, but there is that Misty Copeland level. You celebrate that, certainly, but I wonder whether or not you ever want the day to come where there won’t be that particular focus on your gift, on your talent?

Copeland: I don’t think that’s my journey or my past. I think that being the first, I have to own that and I’m so comfortable owning the fact that that is my journey. There’s no avoiding just because I’ve reached this level of success that I had all of those issues because I’m African American. I hope that, in generations to come, that won’t be the case, but that’s not something that I can or want to ever disown being a Black ballerina. I think it’s just a part of my identity and my path and my journey.

Tavis: When you came in today, I grabbed you and gave you a big hug, as I always do. But I thanked you because there was a young lady who’s a daughter of one of my employees, as a matter of fact, and you were in Atlanta earlier this year and she was just dying to meet you. So I called you and said, “Can you meet this girl?” You met her and she got a big poster of you on the wall now. She loves Misty Copeland.

But it made me think, though, that you must get a lot of mail, must have a lot of little girls around the country and around the world who want to spend time with you, want to get to meet you. Obviously, you can’t do that for everybody, but how do you approach knowing that there are girls everywhere who want to get in your space?

Copeland: I feel like it feeds me. It’s so much a part of what inspires me, being around the next generation and seeing that the arts can still be such a positive influence on peoples’ lives and that a positive Black woman can be a role model for these girls, that it doesn’t have to be, you know, these pop stars. They’re people that they see on TV. It’s really encouraging.

But for me, I’ve always felt really natural and comfortable and it’s felt very organic for me to mentor young girls. It’s so much a part of the ballet structure and tradition, and I know that you had Carmen de Lavallade on and that’s so much a part of the dance history is that it’s passing down this knowledge from generation to generation.

It’s so hands-on that it’s not so much about reading a book or looking at a video and learning steps. It’s really from one person to another, so I feel like that’s engrained in me in wanting to give back to the next generation.

Tavis: So I’m glad you mentioned Carmen because there’s a clip of her that I want to show. She was on our program, as you mentioned, not too long ago. And your comment now is right on time because she talked about you and she talked about the generations and the legacy that you are proudly a part of. So here’s what Carmen said about you and the generations prior to you. Here’s Carmen de Lavallade.

Carmen Lavallade: It’s an extraordinary thing that she’s done. I mean, this child has worked really hard. She’s in a position now that it’s not–we’re all in the media right now. Everybody is–they know now and not before. It’s not Misty. She worked extremely hard for ballet theater and, actually, I guested with them years ago for Agnes De Mille. In fact, I was there twice, guested for them twice.

But to be a part of the company, there is the problem that they didn’t have someone of color that was really, let’s say, prima ballerina of the company, you see. And I am so proud of that young lady and she’s magnificent, but what happens with the way the world is now, they only see now and they never see the past.

Tavis: There’s Carmen talking about seeing now, not seeing the past. Let me talk then about the future, back to these girls that so admire you and so adore you and love you. Are you seeing evidence that there are going to be a bunch of Misty Copelands behind you?

Copeland: Yes. Again, it’s not just my efforts. I think that right now, as Carmen was saying, that people are seeing me and I think that what’s important is they’re seeing what I represent. And there will be many more Carmens. There will be many more Raven Wilkinsons and Virginia Johnsons.

And I think that it’s not about me. It’s about what the symbol holds, and that’s carrying all of these Black women that I stand on the shoulders of. And, again, I think it’s important to acknowledge that in this day and age because I think it’s so rare that our youth kind of are aware of how important it is to respect the people that have come before us and got us here.

Tavis: What is there–I could have asked Carmen the same question, but she ain’t here. You are, so I’ll ask you now. But what is there–since you’re an African American, you know the journey that we walk as a people.

What do you think ballet, that classical dance, offers by way of enlightening, empowering, improving–you know what I’m getting at– inspiring the lives of our particular people? What’s the takeaway from classical dance?

Copeland: You know, I think that what’s so beautiful about the arts, period, but about ballet and dance in particular is that it’s a universal language. Being in different countries, you don’t have to speak the same language as these children, but you’re communicating. And it’s not even about what race you are. It’s giving everyone the same equal opportunity and experience when you’re a part of it.

So, I mean, the benefits are for everyone. it’s not just, you know, that Black girls in particular are getting more out of it than someone else would. But I think that it’s sparking something and I’m proof of this. I don’t think that every child learns in the same way and I think that the arts awakens something in us as people that nothing else can.

It allows us to experience creativity. It connects parts of your brain to your body, through your ears, hearing music and, connecting all of this together, it’s a full body experience that I think allows you to grow in ways that reading a book or, you know, even playing an instrument, but it’s really using your full body experience. And I just think that every child can benefit from that.

Tavis: I couldn’t agree more. What’s scary about that is, though, that the arts seem to be under assault, though, in our school system. So everything you’ve just said is true, but I wonder how we get that? I wonder how this generation gets to experience that if we keep attacking, assaulting, which is to say, cutting arts programs in schools?

Copeland: You know, I think it’s about people like me having a voice and showing that it works. Being in Rwanda working with the organization MindLeaps just really kind of put this stamp on it like, yes, it’s not just my experience. This works for people. It’s changing peoples’ lives.

In Rwanda, we were working with street kids that are illiterate, don’t have families, don’t have food, and they’re trying to find a way to break this cycle of poverty. And it’s really easy to say, oh, just put them in school and give them an education.

But when they don’t have social skills, they need to be on the street to make money to get food for their siblings they’re taking care of, for the most part. How do you break that cycle?

And something that MindLeaps is doing is starting it out by using the universal language of dance, getting them to commit to coming every day to the studio to be able to be social and use parts of their bodies they never have experienced.

Once they realize that they have taken that next step as a human being, they introduce them to IT classes and computer and English classes. I think every child should start learning in that order.

Tavis: You mentioned earlier that the life of a ballerina is limited. We know that. What’s the lifespan of your career going to be?

Copeland: Well, let’s see.

Tavis: You’re 15 years in now.

Copeland: Yeah. I thought you were going to say I’m 15 years old. Yes [laugh]?

Tavis: You look 15. That’s a compliment. You still look young [laugh]. So you’re 15 years in. How long will this go?

Copeland: You know, I think it’s up to us to feel that we are healthy and strong enough to do it for as long as we can, or up to the artistic director to say, okay, you’re time is up. I’d say that I’ve got maybe another eight years in me.

40 years old is about the time a principal dancer would start to think about retirement, but some go on to dance a little bit longer than that. But it all depends on your physical, you know, well-being. I’d like to do it for as long as I look good doing it [laugh].

Tavis: Well, in that case, you’ll be doing it for a long time. I ask that in part because, one, you made me think about it when you said that the life of a dancer is obviously limited. But I wonder how differently–I could be fried any day now, so don’t take this question the wrong way. I could get a note from PBS tomorrow. You’ve had your last show. And if you’re in this business long enough, you will have that experience and I’ve had that before.

But it’s a little bit different, though, in your case because–well, you are an athlete, but you’re like an athlete–you got an Under Armour deal, as a matter of fact, so you’re definitely an athlete. But an athlete has to know that that time is coming. Some don’t get off the field or off the court–I ain’t calling no names–when they should–hi, Kobe–but they know it’s coming, right?

Copeland: He knows now.

Tavis: He knows now, yeah. So they know it’s coming, so like how do you process your life when you know that, in eight years, you might not be in this lane in the way that you are now? How does that impact the decisions you make today?

Copeland: I’ve always approached my career and my life, you know, one day at a time as if this was the last day that I’m going because you never know as an athlete and as a dancer. You never know what can happen today, tomorrow.

Tavis: And you’ve been injured before.

Copeland: Yes. I mean, injuries are just a part of what comes with the territory. So I think that you won’t have the full experience and be present if you’re kind of predicting what might happen in the future. So I don’t often think about, you know, retirement and how I will feel.

And I know it will be a completely different experience when I’ve decided the time has come where I know that physically I’m not capable. I have no idea emotionally and psychologically what that will feel like. But there’s no way I could be present and put my whole self out there on the stage if I thought that way.

Tavis: That’s fair. Let’s talk about “The Nutcracker”. That’s why you’re here and we started the show by showing some footage of you doing your work so beautifully onstage. What is it about that piece of work that just appeals to us year after year after year?

Copeland: If someone doesn’t know ballet, the one thing they know is “The Nutcracker”. It’s been this odd kind of string throughout my life. You know, the very first production I ever performed in classical ballet at 13 years old was “The Nutcracker” and here I am, full circle, in California again doing it with the American Ballet Theater.

Tavis: I’m sure you’re just a little bit better now than you were when you were 13, just a little bit [laugh].

Copeland: I hope so. I hope so. It’s just, I think, a traditional thing for families to come and experience, but ABT is back home. We used to come here every December for “Nutcracker”. We took some time off for a five-year span with the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York to do “Nutcracker”.

So now we’re back here at the Segerstrom Center from December 10th through the 20th, and I’m performing the 16th and the 19th. It’s just nice to be home and to be doing “Nutcracker” in warm weather [laugh].

Tavis: It is warm weather as compared, yeah. Which leads me to ask. This may be a silly question. I’m just going to ask anyway. When you’re onstage in a cultural arts mecca like New York–in L.A., we’re getting better.

Our art scene and our cultural scene is, I mean, literally, getting so much better here in this town. But when you’re on a stage in a place like New York City doing what you do, is there a palpable difference in how the audience treats you, how you feel onstage? Am I making sense at all?

Copeland: Yes. You know, being in a touring company, American Ballet Theater travels all over the world, so you experience different cultures and how they react to what they’re seeing. New York is definitely, I think, one of the more critical, but at the same time, the diversity in the city just within the past maybe three years, I’m starting to see move into the Metropolitan Opera House.

And, you know, I think, again, it’s about talking about it. It’s about giving people like me exposure. You know, like you were saying, having an Under Armour deal, having a deal with Seiko, it’s getting to people that wouldn’t ordinarily be drawn to classical ballet, have the exposure to even be interested in it.

So it’s really exciting to see the diversity that’s slowly happening, not just on the stage, but in the audiences. I think California is definitely a leader in that way that I’ve seen diverse audiences here for a long time.

Tavis: So I mentioned earlier, you made the Times’ list of the most influential people, and this year you made Barbara Walters’s list for the most–is she still using intriguing or fascinating, interesting, fascinating? Whatever it is, it’s Barbara Walters [laugh].

Copeland: Weird, I don’t know [laugh].

Tavis: How was that experience for you?

Copeland: You know, all of this is surreal. Again, I feel like I’m just taking it one day at a time and I am constantly reminding people that I’m here because I’m a ballerina and it’s not about being a celebrity. It’s, to me, about paying homage to these dancers that have come before me and to just give this art form the respect that it deserves in every platform that I have.

To be interviewed by Barbara Walters is incredible. These things are just something I never thought would happen, a little girl growing up in San Pedro, California. And to be here and have this opportunity, I’m just trying to make the best of it and, again, bring ballet with me with these experiences.

Tavis: Because you are from San Pedro just down the road from this studio, I’ve had a chance to meet your mom on a couple of occasions and your family. How is your family processing all this? And they’re still here in California, of course?

Copeland: Yeah.

Tavis: How are they processing all of this?

Copeland: I think the most shocking part to them is to see me speaking in public. I think that they’ve always known the performer that I am and I think they’ve always thought, oh, she’s special and she’s different from, you know, us in a way that, you know, I don’t think any of them would want to go onstage and perform, and that was very natural for me.

But I was such a shy and quiet child and that’s, again, what I speak about, that the arts can really just change and bring to life a human being. And for them to see me speaking in front of thousands of people, they’re like, “Who are you? How did you become this person that never spoke?”

Tavis: And that always fascinates me, being a TV guy, because you can get onstage and perform for thousands and thousands and thousands of people, and people get nervous about coming to talk to one guy. That’s funny to me.

Copeland: It’s such a different experience. You know, most performers–in silent art forms like dance, most people do it because they don’t enjoy speaking. It’s a way of expressing themselves and still being onstage without having to use their voice. That was the case for me. So I’ve come a long way with the opportunities that I’ve been given to have a voice and feel comfortable with what I’m speaking about.

Tavis: And for all your millions and millions of female fans, I’d be remiss to not make note of that ring on your finger. It’s been blinding me for most of this conversation [laugh]. So all the guys are disappointed because Misty’s engaged and all the girls are happy because Misty’s engaged. So where do you find time to plan the wedding? How’s that coming along?

Copeland: Oh, it’s coming slowly. It’s difficult, but I think I’m pretty good at, you know, finding windows of time to make sure that I can do everything. It’s exciting. It’s really exciting.

Tavis: You’ve had quite a year, as I said at the top of this conversation. And it is so delightful for me and for my entire team. We’ve been together for 13–we’re about to start our 13th season here on PBS.

Copeland: Congratulations.

Tavis: Thank you. So we’ve been here a while as a team and it’s always beautiful for us to see people we’ve known and rooted for just go and go and climb and climb and still be humble enough to come back and see us anyway. So congratulations on a great year. Have a great time with “The Nutcracker”. You want to mention one more time the details?

Copeland: Yes, yes. Segerstrom Center, American Ballet Theater, December 10th through December 20th.

Tavis: There you go. She said it so much more beautifully than I could. Misty, we love you. Come back any time.

Copeland: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Have a great 2016.

Copeland: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 11, 2015 at 2:55 pm