Misty Copeland undeniably had one hell of a year.
Aside from becoming the first black female principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history—and wowing on the September cover of ESSENCE magazine as a result—the 33-year-old also made her Broadway debut in On the Town and is joining forces with writer Tracy Oliver to develop a dance drama series for FOX.
With all of that taken into consideration, it’s no wonder that Glamour magazine named Misty one of its 2015 Women of the Year. Reese Witherspoon, Caitlyn Jenner, Victoria Beckham, Elizabeth Holmes, Cecile Richards, the women of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting and the United States women’s soccer team round out the list of honorees.
Some moments in history start out very ordinary. June 30 was a Tuesday, and Misty Copeland, in a yellow leotard, headed to her usual company class at American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Afterward, artistic director Kevin McKenzie told her to “take a bow”: She had been promoted to principal dancer, the first African American ballerina to reach that level in the elite classical ballet company’s 75-year history. Hillary Clinton and Prince both tweeted their congratulations; “Finally,” wrote The Washington Post.
As a little girl, Copeland, now 33, didn’t exactly dream of breaking barriers. Born the fourth of six children, she was raised in San Pedro, California, by her mom and stepfathers. At one point the family struggled: They moved into a motel, where Copeland and her siblings slept on the floor. But it was during this time that a teacher suggested Copeland try dance at the local Boys & Girls Clubs of America. She was 13 and felt completely out of her element at that first class, but she remembers the teacher telling her, “I’ve never seen anyone as naturally talented as you.” Soon she was hooked. “In the ballet studio, it was such an organized and disciplined environment, like I’d never had in my life,” Copeland says. “Seeing myself in the mirror, surrounded by the classical music, that’s when I started to fall in love with dance.” She knew she had a lot to learn—she was a decade beyond the age at which most professionals begin their training—but she worked hard to catch up. At age 15 she joined the studio division of ABT, her dream company; at 18 she graduated to its corps de ballet. Then, only months into her professional career, Copeland underwent late-onset puberty, and her frame morphed from the tiny ballet ideal to curvy and muscular. Company directors told her to “lengthen”—lose weight, in balletspeak. Suddenly her strong body, the very instrument that had brought her so far, was the thing she feared would hold her back. The discomfort she felt in her physicality heightened her awareness of something else: her race. She’d gotten used to being the only woman of color in the room, but now she was aware she looked even more different from the dancers around her. “And that, in the ballet world, is not acceptable,” she says. “I felt lost.” As her body continued to change, Copeland watched coveted lead roles go to other dancers. Dejected, she nearly left ABT. “But I couldn’t do it,” she says. “It felt like failure if I let them put me in this box.”
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