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Dancer Misty Copeland’s graceful steps are halted by the pandemic

Misty Copeland has been a major star in American cultural life for much of the last decade. As principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, she became the first Black woman to achieve that position in the company’s 75 year history. But amid a pandemic shutdown, the graceful steps and powerful moves have all but stopped for her and dancers around the country. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, tonight: It's a holiday season unlike any other.

    One artist who has brought much joy to prior seasons is, like everyone else, wrestling with what this year has brought.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with dancer Misty Copeland for our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For much of the last decade, Misty Copeland has been a major star in American cultural life, as principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and as a history-making role model, the first Black woman to achieve that position in the company's 75-year history.

    Now, amid a pandemic shutdown of live performances, the graceful steps and powerful moves have all but stopped for her and dancers all over the country.

  • Misty Copeland:

    This is the longest in my 20-year professional career that I have really gone without really intense training. And I haven't been on a stage since December of last year.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That has to be disappointing, frustrating.

    How does it feel?

  • Misty Copeland:

    It's all those things.

    Dancers have been furloughed. A lot of them have lost their jobs and aren't making an income.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To help, Copeland created Swans For Relief, gathering a group of 32 ballerinas from around the world to help raise money for dancers and companies.

    She's also continuing her work to diversify and broaden ballet's reach, including with a new children's book titled "Bunheads."

  • Misty Copeland:

    It's really to bring a more authentic and positive experience and light to how young people experience dance.

    It's an endearing name that dancers have for the ones that are just so passionate about it. They just can't take those buns off their heads when they get home.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Misty Copeland:

    When they get home after training. But I always felt like it was like a rite of passage. And I love that fact that I was called a bunhead. And it's like a little group that you want to be a part of.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Copeland's own story is by now well-known, how she started at age 13, much later than most dancers, and stood out for both her talent and the color of her skin.

    She persevered and in a 20-years-and-counting professional career has had an enormous impact, making ballet visible in new ways.

    Did you have serious fears, doubts along the way that almost made you stop, or were you just kind of strong and gung-ho from the beginning?

  • Misty Copeland:

    I definitely was strong and gung-ho.

    I think that the fears and doubts I had were really around the color of my skin, which was later, once I became a professional dancer, that I was more exposed to that reality.

    But that was definitely what made me question whether or not I belonged in the ballet world, being a member of American Ballet Theatre, which is a company that's 90 dancers, and I was the only Black woman for the first decade of my career.

    So, if that doesn't sow doubt, I don't know what will.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Misty Copeland:

    And it was really me taking the steps to be open to having support and guidance from a lot of people in the Black community that made me feel that it's OK to be the first and it's OK to be different.

    And I think that's such a powerful message for young people everywhere.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The racial and social protests this year following the death of George Floyd have led to a new reckoning within the arts world as well, one Copeland thinks is long overdue.

    It's been an issue I know you have talked a lot about in your field. But what needs to happen?

  • Misty Copeland:

    I have been having these conversations very openly for 20 years of my career with American Ballet Theatre, and this is the first time that I feel a shift in an authentic interest in what I'm saying, and what my colleagues are saying, and what's happening in the world.

    That, to me, is the first step, that it's not just about creating a diversity initiative and plastering my face on it and saying that progress is being made. I think that there just needs to be acknowledgement of the fact that so many dancers of color are not given equal opportunity, or are not given opportunity at all, that there are so many negative things that we have held onto from the past, because we have never had to address it.

    The ballet world can so easily exist in this bubble, where the spotlight is not on them. And now I think that everything is being exposed in so many different fields.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ironically, the shutdown may help, at least in exposing more people to an art form from which they might otherwise feel left out.

    For now, dance is available all over online and streaming services.

    What do you see happening this holiday season?

  • Misty Copeland:

    This, to me, is an incredible opportunity for ballet to reach more people. We have never truly had a strong virtual presence, an online presence, and this is just what we have to do.

    And it's allowing more people to see us .And I think that whatever — we come out of this, and whatever the world looks like and whatever theater looks like in the future, more people will be interested and more people will have been exposed to it.

    And I think that that is one of the most beautiful things about this time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Misty Copeland knows the crisis for dance and other performing arts is real, but fearless on stage, she's also hopeful as she waits offstage.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So glad Jeff had a chance to talk with Misty Copeland.

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