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How Misty Copeland is turning pointe shoes into political power

America’s Misty Copeland has morphed from prima ballerina into A-grade celebrity. And she’s determined to use her profile to push for greater diversity in dance.

The 2000-strong crowd at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre roared its approval, demanding curtain call after curtain call as a triumphant Misty Copeland kept returning to the stage alongside her fellow American Ballet Theater (ABT) dancers. It was September 2014, and the ballerina had chosen Brisbane – far from her home town, New York, and with a less critical audience – as the place to debut the dual role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake.

Playing the technically and artistically challenging role of both the white swan queen and her duplicitous black doppelgänger is a milestone for any professional dancer. But for Copeland, then aged 31 and a soloist, it had added freight: she was only the second professional African-American dancer to perform the role. The first was Houston Ballet's Lauren Anderson, and that was nearly two decades earlier, in 1996. The world of ballet might be slowly changing, but for the most part it is still as white as the bank of swans protecting their queen.

Brisbane was soon abuzz with talk of Copeland's performance. David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, wanted to see what all the fuss was about, so the next day he flew up from his home base of Melbourne to take in a show.

McAllister keeps a keen eye on those at the beating heart of the dance world – in New York, Paris, London, Moscow – from which he plucks occasional guest stars. Not only do they inspire the company's 74 dancers and boost ticket sales, they deepen relations between the company, which itself seeks invitations to tour, and the wider dance world. During his 16-year tenure he's convinced Cuban Carlos Acosta, French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, American David Hallberg and Russian Natalia Osipova to fly in, grace Australian stages, and fly home again. Briefly introduced to Copeland backstage, he added her to his wish list.

A lot has changed between that moment and this coming November, when Copeland will finally take up his offer, dancing in two Sydney performances of the Australian Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. In the interim, the 34-year-old has become a superstar, one of those rare dancers who manages to cross over from celebrated dancer to off-stage celebrity.

That shift began not long after she returned from Brisbane and was asked by activewear label Under Armour to be one of its ambassadors – a radical (and highly successful) departure for a brand more traditionally associated with sports people, mainly basketball and football players.


Since then, Copeland has attended gala dinners at the White House, toured with Prince and appeared in Vogue. Other corporate partnerships have been signed, including with luxury label Coach and the soft drink Diet Dr Pepper, and she's had an ongoing guest judge spot on So You Think You Can Dance. She has penned a best-selling memoir, Life in Motion:An Unlikely Ballerina, the film rights to which have been bought by Warner Bros, and has had a documentary feature made about her, A Ballerina's Story.

Only a handful of dancers have made such a leap into the mainstream. Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov are among them; more recently there's been Sylvie Guillem, Darcey Bussell and – thanks to his book Mao's Last Dancer and its film adaptation – Australia's Li Cunxin.

Copeland has become something else, too: a soft-power role model whose stage presence reminds the world that people of colour can succeed in conservative white institutions. When she was promoted to the rank of principal dancer at ABT in August 2015, she became the first African-American to receive the accolade in the company's 75-year history.

"I get a tonne of fan mail that my team and I respond to, and what's so incredible is it isn't just from African-American dancers, it's from people who can relate to feeling like they don't belong, or they're not accepted, and they can relate to my story," Copeland says down the phone from her home in New York. "Some days I think, 'Ugh, I'm exhausted, I've been rehearsing all day, I'm performing tonight, I don't want to talk about this.' Then I get a text from someone asking for help and I need to help in some way. This is what I stand for, and I feel so strongly about it that there's not a day I would walk away from having the conversation."

It's no coincidence that when you join Copeland's 1.4 million Instagram followers, the photo-sharing platform suggests you might also like to follow Michelle Obama, wife of the first African-American president. Copeland has formed a strong bond with the former first couple. "The Obamas are such a positive influence on being different and being 'other'. It's been so incredible witnessing his presidency and working closely with the two of them and visiting the White House on so many occasions," Copeland says. "I feel like that's what we stand for and that's what we should represent: acceptance and diversity and progression." 

Misty Copeland was born in Kansas City in 1982 and grew up in San Pedro, California, where she lived in two small rooms at the Sunset Inn motel with her single mother and five siblings. (Her father, Doug Copeland, was not a part of her life for many years, and the pair only became reacquainted when Misty was 22.) A quiet, introverted child, Copeland was happiest watching historical footage of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci or holed up in the bathroom listening to Mariah Carey.

I get a tonne of fan mail... and what's so incredible is it isn't just from African-American dancers, it's from people who can relate to feeling like they don't belong, or they're not accepted.

Misty Copeland

She was introduced to ballet at the age of 13 – ancient by classical ballet's standards – when she joined a free ballet class on the basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro. It was a circuitous route. Although her mother, Sylvia Dela Cerna, was a former Kansas City Chiefs NFL team cheerleader, it was Copeland's older sister, Erica, who urged her to join the school drill team. The teacher who coached the drill team in turn encouraged her to check out the ballet class.

Despite her late start, progress was swift. Within months Copeland was dancing en pointe, an achievement most ballerinas spend years perfecting. At 15, she won first place in a scholarship and training program for young artists, going on to attend a summer workshop at the San Francisco Ballet School. She turned down workshop offers from the Joffrey Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem because she was determined to work with one of America's three most prestigious companies: the San Francisco Ballet, the American Ballet Theater or the New York City Ballet. One company told her she was too old and too muscular for its summer workshop program. In 2000 Copeland got her big break, joining the American Ballet Theater's Studio Company. She was promoted from that feeder school into the main company just seven months later.

It hasn't all been easy. Copeland hit puberty late at 19, and it took a lot of support from ABT for her to accept the curves her body developed. There's been immense strain on the family front, too. In 1998, she was caught up in a highly publicised court battle involving her mother and her dance teacher, Cindy Bradley, who'd provided emotional and financial support from the beginning, and later a bed in her own home. When her financially struggling mother demanded Copeland return home and give up ballet and the onerous commute, Bradley encouraged Copeland to petition the courts for parental emancipation. At the end of the two-month hearing, Copeland dropped the petition and was reunited with her family. "It was very traumatic having so much of my life exposed for everyone to see," she told The Guardian earlier this year. "It took 10 years before I could talk about it without crying."

Copeland rose to the rank of soloist at the ABT in 2007. It all nearly came undone in 2012, when she was preparing to debut in the treacherously difficult lead role in The Firebird. One of her shins was so painful she could barely walk. "The pressures of knowing how many people were coming out to support me, how many people in the African-American community ... understood what this meant, to have an African-American woman in this role with the American Ballet Theater, in the Metropolitan Opera House. So it was like, 'I'm doing this!' " she told 60 Minutes in 2015.

She finished the show but was later told that, with six stress fractures in her tibia, three of them almost full breaks through the bone, she might never dance again. She returned to the stage seven months later with a plate in her leg and within two years had danced her way to that prized principal position.

In late 2014, President Barack Obama invited Copeland to join his President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and in April 2015 she became the first dancer in 23 years to grace the cover of Time magazine, as one of its 100 Most Influential People. Time invited Copeland and Obama to have an on-therecord, one-on-one chat about the issues they faced in their respective high-profile roles.

"Being the only African-American in almost every environment of classical ballet, it weighs on you," she told the president. "It has definitely been a huge obstacle for me, but it's also allowed me to have this fire inside me that I don't know I would have had if I wasn't in this field… Having a platform and a voice to be seen by people beyond the classical ballet world has really been my power, showing it's possible to have any skin complexion, to have a healthy body image."

Misty Copeland and Barack Obama forged
a strong bond during his spell in the White House.

Misty Copeland and Barack Obama forged a strong bond during his spell in the White House. Photo: Supplied

Influential businessman and partner at Goldman Sachs, Valentino D. Carlotti, came across Copeland's story and, conscious of the similarities with his own life as a person of colour in an industry dominated by white people, decided to sponsor her position with ABT.

In 2017 it is still possible to count on two hands the number of non-white professional dancers who hold senior positions:the Royal Ballet's Eric Underwood, Birmingham Royal Ballet's Celine Gittens and Dutch National Ballet's Michaela DePrince among them. But while change appears glacial, Copeland feels it is happening.

"It's encouraging," she says. "People who have never come to see ballet are bringing their children who are biracial and multiracial and African-American. People want to see themselves represented. I've definitely seen a shift and it's really exciting to hear the roars and see the young audience members – it's like being at a Justin Bieber concert. And the fact we're having the conversation is, I think, so important. So to be able to come to Australia and represent so many who don't have that opportunity means so much to me."

When Copeland dances here, it will be as part of a proudly multicultural company, more than a third of whom are first-generation Australian or Australian residents born overseas. Earlier this year, the Australian Ballet welcomed its second Indigenous dancer, Evie Ferris, who joins Ella Havelka in the corps de ballet.

McAllister sees Copeland as an example of what can and should be achieved by dancers from all backgrounds. "For us it's only the beginning," he says. "There's a lot more work to do in that area but having both Evie and Ella in the company is really good and it will be amazing for them to have Misty here. And for all the new refugees in Australia it would be exciting to see someone like her here, inspiring all those little girls who think ballet is just for white girls and boys."

In The Sleeping Beauty, Copeland will debut in the coveted role of Princess Aurora, a character depicted ad nauseam in children's books, films and merchandise as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. As only the second professional dancer of colour to take on the role, she's not so much bored with firsts as accustomed to them. "At this point, being the first African-American principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, no matter what I do I'm going to continue to break barriers," she says. "And that's pretty much the case in every top international company: there's never been a black woman. So with every role I do, it continues to be something that hasn't been done before."

The wider world is increasingly keen to get a slice of the action. Just this month Estée Lauder announced Copeland as "global spokesmodel" for its Modern Muse fragrance, the first ballerina attached to the influential cosmetics empire. She was hand-selected for the role by Lauder's style and image director Aerin Lauder, who felt Copeland personified the fragrance's catchphrase: "Be an inspiration." In 2018 she will become the first ballerina of colour to appear in a Disney film, in an adaptation of The Nutcracker directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starring Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren.

Brands including cosmetics giant Estee Lauder have been keen to tap the Misty magic.

Brands including cosmetics giant Estée Lauder have been keen to tap the Misty magic. Photo: @mistyonpointe/instagram

Amid all this off-stage activity, Copeland found time last August to marry her long-time sweetheart, Manhattan lawyer Olu Evans, on California's Laguna Beach.

Copeland's childhood friend, fellow ABT principal David Hallberg, is gratified to see his colleague achieve such heights after years of perseverance. "I've known Misty since we were 16 years old. We've both watched each other grow up from being teenagers and now we're both in our 30s," he says. "The harder you fight, the more you appreciate what you do, and I believe Misty really has fought to be where she is today."

For his part, McAllister couldn't be happier about what's happened to Copeland since he first thought of asking her to visit Australia. "She's brought ballet into the mainstream. No matter how much we do interesting stuff and wonderful work, when the mainstream world picks up on dance, it's a coup."

Misty Copeland will guest star in The Australian Ballet production The Sleeping Beauty at Sydney's Capitol Theatre on November 22 and 24.