Misty Copeland, Athlete

The ballerina is the first African American principal dancer in American Ballet Theater history. That’s good news not just for ballet as an art, but for ballet as a sport.


There’s an obligatory scene in pretty much every movie about ballet, be it comedy or drama or dramedy: the scene that shows a ballerina—a svelte, usually very pale, usually very pretty ballerina—taking off her pointe shoes to reveal feet that are covered in bruises and blood. The scene is meant to evoke the various ironies and self-contradictions of ballet as art form: lightness enabled by strength, daintiness enabled by determination. Artistry and athleticism. Grace and grit. Whirling skirts and floating arms, all spinning and balancing and relying on flesh and bone.

But if ballet has traditionally both embraced and eschewed its core humanity, Misty Copeland, in her athleticism and in her fame, embodies it. She is, on top of everything else, an athlete. And she isn’t shy about presenting herself as such. So it’s significant that what ballet watchers have long expected has come to pass: Copeland has finally been named a principal at New York’s American Ballet Theater. This has come after her spending more than 14 years with the company, nearly eight of them as a soloist. The promotion makes Copeland the first African American female principal dancer in the company’s 75-year history. It also marks, however, a new chapter for ballet—not just as an art, but as a sport.

Copeland’s fame, The New York Times points out, has recently extended beyond dance circles. She has written both a memoir (2014’s Life in Motion), which carries the tag line “My Story of Adversity and Grace,” and a children's book. She’s been featured as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People—oded by Nadia Comaneci as “ballet's breakout star”—and as a profile subject on 60 Minutes. She’s the subject of a documentary, A Ballerina's Tale, that premiered at Tribeca this year. She was a presenter at this year's Tony Awards. She currently has more than 500,000 followers on Instagram. She’s sponsored by the sports clothing manufacturer Under Armour.

The last of these might well be the most significant. The Under Armour sponsorship came in 2014, and it was a deal whose compensation, she said, exceeded her yearly ABT salary. Copeland has also starred in T-Mobile ads, and in Dr. Pepper ads. She’s endorsed Capezio dance wear and Sansha dance shoes and Lavazza coffee and Payless Shoe Source and Proactiv Solution. She works with the Boys and Girls Club.

All of this is to say: Misty Copeland doesn’t just look like an athlete or act like an athlete; she is an athlete—commercially on top of everything else. Her public image is not just one of a lovely ballerina, be-jeweled and be-tutu-ed, but also of an athlete who is also a savvy businessperson. She has made, just like any famous athlete will, commercial gain from her talents.

Which is an important declaration not just for Copeland herself, but for her sport. Which also happens to be her art.