Ballet dancer Misty Copeland

The first African American female soloist at the American Ballet Theatre offers her reflections on whether ballet is an elite art form and discusses the impact of the film Black Swan on the dance.

Misty Copeland is one of the world's top Black ballet dancers. Widely credited as the first African American soloist at American Ballet Theatre—one of the three leading classical companies in the U.S.—she rose to stardom despite not starting ballet until age 13. By age 15, she was winning awards. Copeland joined ABT's Studio Company in '00, became a member of the corps de ballet in '01 and was appointed a soloist in '07. Last year, she was handpicked by Prince to appear in one of his videos and perform during his global tour.


Tavis: Misty Copeland is a talented ballet dancer and the first African American female soloist at the American Ballet Theater. She has also recently toured with our friend Prince, which follows her appearance in his video. Before we get to all that, though, here she is in a performance of the ballet Giselle.

[Film clip of ballet performance]

Tavis: Yeah, exactly.

Misty Copeland:
Thank you.

Tavis: I wanted you here because you’re good, I wanted you here because I saw you at Madison Square Garden, on stage with Prince, and had a chance to meet you, and I wanted you here because you made some history, being the first African American female soloist.

But the timing of our conversation couldn’t be more propitious, couldn’t be better, given all the hype about the ballet these days, courtesy of Hollywood and “Black Swan.”

It’s great.

So what are we to make – what do you think of all the energy around ballet now, thanks to the film?

Copeland: It’s exciting that we’re getting the recognition. I feel this art form should get – I think it has a reputation for being very elite, and people feel like they can’t relate to it. So it’s great that Hollywood and the hip-hop industry, the music industry, is taking notice and involving us. I think it’s great.

Tavis: You think it is an elitist art form?

Just because I think it takes money to get the right training, and so therefore it has been considered an elite art form.

Tavis: How did it happen for you, then? If it takes a bunch of money, unless you’re going to tell me you’re independently wealthy, and I didn’t know that. I didn’t come across that in my research, but I see your mama sitting to the side, shaking her head, “No, it’s not because we’re independently wealthy.” So since it is an expensive venture, how did it happen for you?

Ballet found me, I guess you could say. I was discovered by a teacher in middle school. I always danced, my whole life. I never had any training, never was exposed to seeing dance, but I always had something inside of me. I would love to choreograph and dance around, and I had a teacher, when I was trying out for the cheerleading drill team, and she noticed my talent and suggested that I take ballet lessons. I was 13, and –

Is 13 a little – it sounds funny to say – is 13 a little old to be starting ballet?

Copeland: Thirteen is a very late age, especially for a woman. It’s more common with men, because you have to get the body before it changes, so that you can mold it. So yes, I started at a late age, and I decided within a couple of months that I was going to do this professionally, because I didn’t have much time to get the right training. So I decided I was going to devote everything, so for the next four years I trained and then joined American Ballet Theater.

Tavis: How do you, in the space of time when you’re already starting late, make up that ground and become good at it?

Copeland: Finding great training, I think, is number one. Did a lot of research and found really great teachers, and it just takes – I took a year off from school and did independent studies so that I could devote all of my time to it. But I think that training is the key, definitely, and I devoted my life to it. I still am doing that.

Tavis: Speaking of training, one can’t see this movie, “Black Swan,” at least this one person couldn’t, and walk away not just feeling for the dancer. This thing, it’s beautiful to see – let me put it this way. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful and yet so painful. I see you smiling already – you know where I’m going with this.

It’s a beautiful thing to watch, but it looks like you all go through so much pain to make all that happen. So is the movie accurate, is it inaccurate?

Copeland: It definitely draws from things that I’m sure a lot of dancers have gone through and that have happened. It’s exaggerated a little bit, but I think it’s a great portrayal of how much dedication and hard work it takes, and how much we put into doing a role. It’s just like an actor would, preparing for a role. I think that because it’s an art form, people don’t get to see the other side.

It’s not a sport, and so we’re not supposed to make it look like it’s work or like it’s hard, but –

Tavis: But it is.

Copeland: It’s extremely, extremely difficult.

Tavis: On a regular basis, what kind of – for those of us who go to a gym regularly, on any given day you’re going to be feeling some pain, depending on what the workout was. But on a regular day, how do you physically feel most of the time? Are your toes hurting? How do you feel, typically?

Copeland: There are things that your body gets used to. When I was younger, my feet would hurt a lot, but you build up calluses and strength and you don’t feel as much pain there. But then again, it’s a give and take. The older you get, you may feel pain in your back or your hips.

But I think that once you make it to a level with a company as prestigious as American Ballet Theater, you pretty much have to be built for it, I think, which makes it easier on the body.

To your point of being in the American Ballet Theater, I always feel a certain way about African Americans who are accomplishing firsts, and I especially feel that way these days – here we are in 2011, and there are still so many things that African Americans have yet had a chance to do.

So that, on the one hand, you celebrate Misty, you celebrate Barack Obama, you celebrate any number of African Americans who are doing things for the first time. On the other hand, I wonder whether we make too big a deal out of that, and whether or not it puts a certain level of pressure on the person who knows that they are the first to respond in a certain way. That’s a mouthful. Respond any way you want to respond.

Copeland: I think it depends on the person. I’ve never felt pressure. I think that I’ve stepped into, I guess, this role with pride, and I think it’s amazing to be able to be, I guess, a vessel, and get it out there to other Black dancers that they can do it, and that I’m here. I’ve gotten nothing but warmth from the Black community and positive feedback.

Tavis: Do you see others, other young women, other young men of color pursuing this kind of career path, or is there still a complete dearth and paucity of African American ballet dancers?

Copeland: I’ve seen more, but they’re out there. I just think that they’re not being given the opportunities to audition –

Tavis: Be exposed the same way, yeah.

Copeland: – or get into a company of this caliber. But they’re there. There are so many talented Black ballet dancers out there. They just have to be given the opportunity.

Tavis: So what happens, then, when your talent and your gift hooks up with a guy like Prince? Everybody knows I love him. That’s my guy. But when he gives you a chance to be exposed, puts you in a video, puts you on stage with him, sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, et cetera, et cetera, what does that do for your exposure, and your exposure on a personal level?

What’s that do for you, number one, and number two, what do you think it does for the art form, in terms of exposing it, courtesy of Prince, to other African Americans?

Copeland: I think that it’s incredible, what he’s doing. He has so much respect for every art form, and I think it’s great that everyone at Madison got to see, who’d probably never seen classical ballet in their life. I think he’s doing a great thing, exposing people, and hopefully they’ll come to the Metropolitan Opera House and not feel like it’s too, I don’t know, out of their league or something.

Are there purists in your world who would look at something, even though it’s with this iconic artist, Prince, who would look at you on stage at Madison Square Garden and think, okay, she’s bastardizing the art form, she’s hanging out with Prince on stage at Madison Square Garden. That’s not what the American Ballet Theater is all about. Are there purists who get attitude about stuff like that?

Copeland: I don’t think so, and I haven’t experienced it. I think it’s great for the culture, for it to be exposed, but also at the same time I feel like I’m respectful to what I do in my company, and it’s great that I’m being given these opportunities with Prince, but I’m a classical ballet dancer, and at the end of the day I want to be with American Ballet Theater, performing classical ballets.

Tavis: Prince ain’t a bad dancer himself.

Copeland: No. (Laughter)

Tavis: The best part of the story for me, and I had no idea until we started doing the research when we knew we had the opportunity to talk to you – you grew up, like, down the road from here. Like, who knew that you grew up – you’re making this history, you’re on the world stage, literally, at the American Ballet Theater, world stage with Prince, and you grew up in San Pedro?

I did, I grew up in San Pedro, California. (Laughter)

Tavis: How is that possible?

Copeland: (Laughs) It’s a small town, and it’s really amazing that I was discovered and that I’ve been given these great opportunities to travel the world and work with amazing artists. I’m very blessed.

So are we, because of your gift. So the moral to tonight’s conversation is the next time you get asked can anything good come out of San Pedro, the answer is yes. (Laughter) Misty Copeland has made history now as the first African American female soloist with the American Ballet Theater, a wonderful company, of course.

If you are fortunate enough and if their schedules continue to mesh and you can catch her on the road anywhere with our friend Prince, it is a show and a performance you will absolutely enjoy. Misty, congratulations. Good to have you on the program.

Copeland: Thank you very much. Thank you.

It’s my pleasure.

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Last modified: September 8, 2014 at 5:26 pm