Maya Mondlak Reuveni
October 3, 2015
When you hear the word ballerina, what does that make you think of? You’re probably thinking of a tall girl with a long neck, tiny waist, slim hips, thin thighs, and long skinny arms. Now keep imagining this girl, except look closer at her skin color. As much as it might be hard to admit it, you probably see this girl as white. Misty Copeland, the first African American soloist in 20 years in American Ballet Theater (ABT), struggled with her skin color for most of her life. It wasn’t until she became older that she had issues with her body.
Before I researched Misty Copeland’s life, I just thought that she was an amazing dancer, but after reading her book “Life in Motion” I realized that there is an inspiring story behind her current success. I consider Misty Copeland as a role model for a lot of reasons. She decided to be an example for other little girls of color who wanted to dance. She knew that she could be someone great and she took that opportunity and the risk of losing everything along the way.
I am impressed by her perseverance through everything and everyone who tried to knock her down. She could have given up at any time, but she chose not to. She started off not knowing anything about dance much less Ballet. But once she discovered Ballet she instantly fell in love with it and something clicked for her. When she started she didn’t know any technique, her family had barely any money, she was tiny, she was older than the other girls, and she was black. With so much working against her she needed a lot of determination to succeed.
Misty Copeland’s childhood was not easy. She grew up in Kansas City, Missouri with five siblings, and her mother was constantly moving the family to live with different husbands. Some of these husbands put her family in a dangerous situation because they were abusive to her mother, and to her siblings. This caused her mom to sometimes tell her siblings to pack silently, and get ready to move again. They moved from home to home and eventually lived in a rundown motel, the whole family in one room. This was not easy for Misty or her siblings, and caused her to have strong anxiety. Misty did not know her own biological father until she was much older.
When she was in 7th grade, Misty tried out to be captain of the drill team. She was inexperienced and nervous, but she gave it her all. Then she was informed that she got it! From there, she became popular. Lots of people wanted to hang out with her and Misty wasn’t necessarily used to all of that attention.
On the drill team there was a girl who danced Ballet. She showed the girls on the team how to do certain moves, and Misty started enjoying it. One day Elizabeth Canteen, the coach of the team, told her that she thought that Misty had the perfect physique for Ballet, and natural ability. Elizabeth knew that every day after school Misty had to go wait with her siblings at the Boys and Girls club for their mom. She told Misty that Cindy Bradley, a friend of hers, taught a Ballet class there and she thought Misty should go try it out. Misty was very hesitant at first, but decided to go and see what it was like. When she got there, she became very scared and shy. She saw girls wearing leotards, tights, and Ballet shoes. All she had were gym clothes. These girls looked much taller than she was. She sat in the back bleachers, and just watched for a week. One day Cindy went over to her and asked her what she was doing. She explained how Elizabeth told her to come and check it out. Cindy brought Misty to the front of the class and started bending her into many positions. Misty didn’t have to strain or struggle to be able to do these. It came naturally to her, and it was evident on the girls’ faces that they were jealous that they couldn’t achieve the Ballet positions so easily.
As Misty started enjoying Ballet more and more, she started to discover that she did have the perfect body for dance, and she was perfect as a dancer. As much as Ballet was a positive part of her life, her home life still wasn’t good. Her mother was still legally married to the husband they just moved away from, and her mother and siblings didn’t understand that she was becoming more and more serious about Ballet. It seemed like the only other person who understood that she loved Ballet and was truly good at it was Cindy.
Misty started to become really serious about dance, and understood now that she could truly become a professional ballerina if she worked hard at it. However, Misty had a lot of disadvantages. Most professional dancers start dancing when they are around the age of two, age seven at the latest. Misty started dancing when she was thirteen. She had no idea about technique, and a year before she didn’t even know what Ballet was. This only made Misty work harder, and want it more.
One day Cindy explained to Misty that she wanted her to go to her professional dance studio. However, Ballet was going to get really expensive and Cindy knew that Misty’s mother was not going to be able to pay for all of it. Cindy went to Misty’s mom and told her that she thought it would be a good idea for Misty to move in with her family. She said she would pay for all of the expenses for Ballet, and take care of her everyday needs. Misty’s mom was reluctant at first, but realized that it was the best thing for her daughter. So Misty packed the very little that she owned and moved in with Cindy, her husband, and their three year old son.
Right away Ballet started getting a lot more serious for Misty. Every day after school she would go to Cindy’s studio and dance for hours and hours. The more serious she got, the more she realized that people saw her as an outsider simply because she was black.
Misty Copeland had to grow up quickly. Suddenly she had to choose between her mother and family or her career. She went from living with her family to living with Cindy in a Jewish household sharing a room with only one other kid and getting a lot of personal attention. Something that Misty might not have realized as a child was that as much as Cindy was doing this for her, she was also using Misty to promote her own dance studio. Living with Cindy was a wonderful experience, but every time she visited her mother and siblings she could see that her family was struggling and also felt resentment toward her.
At first Misty benefited from her body shape and look, but as she reached puberty she was shocked to find that everything had changed. She wasn’t going through puberty on her own so her doctor put her on birth control pills. This was even harder for her because puberty was condensed into two weeks instead of the usual lengthy transition. She still had the same determination and skill, but she had a different body than she had been used to since she was a little girl. She was already self-conscious and shy, but now there was the emotional factor of going through puberty so late and so quickly as well.
Eventually Misty’s mom and Cindy had a huge legal battle over who was Misty’s guardian, and who would control her life. Obviously this was extremely hard for Misty because these were two women who she loved very much and she had to choose between them. This brought a lot of attention to the Copeland family and put her in the public eye in a way she didn’t want to be. In the end things worked out and Misty moved back with her mother and kept dancing. However, Misty Copeland would never get over that loss.
Over the next five years many opportunities and struggles occurred in Misty Copeland’s life. She traveled to different dance programs, she was accepted into ABT’s summer program, she had a series of mentors within ABT, she was cast in a few major roles where she experienced racism, she had a major injury from which she recovered with lots of hard work and physical therapy, she made friends, she started to accept her body, she grew as a dancer, and eventually became a principal and finally a soloist for ABT. Later in her career she decided she wanted to give back to the community and did a series of fundraisers for artistic development for low income children.
Misty Copeland is a role model to me for so many reasons. For one thing we share the values of friendship and loyalty. Misty Copeland had a lot of friends, and she was loyal to her mother and family even when she was devoted to Cindy. But mainly I admire her perseverance. There were so many opportunities for her to stop everything and just give up, but she didn’t. She only worked harder. She had an incredibly hard life filled with so many obstacles, but she didn’t use that as an excuse to quit. She took her anger and sadness and used it in her dancing, which only made her better.