In 2007, Misty Copeland became one of the most recognizable figures in classical ballet when she earned a spot as the first black female soloist in two decades to perform with the American Ballet Theatre. Five years later, she continued to make history as the first African-American woman to assume the title role in Igor Stravinsky’s iconic ballet, The Firebird, for the classical ballet company. Not bad for a dancer from a single-parent household who put on her first pair of slippers at the overripe (for ballet) age of 13.
Earlier this month, Copeland released a memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, which details her childhood in San Pedro, California as an anxious perfectionist who went from living in a motel with her mother and five siblings to sharing a stage at the Met with the best dancers in the world. Since she did not have the “traditional” background of a ballerina, Copeland says she had to learn how to accept guidance from others on everything from healthy eating habits to living independently as a professional in New York City while still a teenager.
Like many dancers, she experienced puberty late in life, more or less having it induced at 19 years old, and abruptly had to weigh criticism of her mature, seemingly alien body against her rebellious instinct to eat and do whatever she wanted. Later on, since ailments like stress fractures are among the most common pitfalls (ending the careers of up to 43 percent of dancers in the United States, according to a report from The Advance Project), Copeland had to be mindful of her prospects after being sidelined by injury shortly after her debut as the Firebird. Now at a more secure place in her career and still pushing forward, Copeland spoke with me about the physical and psychological demands of being a top-tier ballerina.