Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American female principal dancer in the company’s 75-year history, spoke about her career on Tuesday at Lincoln Center. Amid the overwhelming response to her historic appointment, she was adamant that she isn’t an “overnight sensation.”
Having struggled with self-doubt as a young ballerina, she strives to encourage aspiring dancers to envision a brighter future. “You have to have believe in yourself. Before anyone else, you really have to believe that you’re good enough, you’re worthy and know that it’s not easy,” Copeland said. “You have to put in the work, but you also have to allow yourself to dream.”
Copeland, 32, joined ABT as a member of the corps de ballet, in 2001, and was later appointed a soloist, in 2007. The show-stopping ballerina most recently starred as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” at the Met.
“I am so honored, so extremely honored to be a principal dancer,” she said, “and so proud of my fellow dancers who were also promoted today: Stella Abrera, who’s been with the company longer than I have, who represents what ABT stands for — the hard work and the sacrifice. Cassie Trenary was promoted to soloist, and Skylar Brandt, Arron Scott and Thomas Forster. It’s an exciting day for all of us.”
Copeland recalled a particularly significant moment of trepidation when she first arrived in the corps de ballet at ABT. “When I looked around and saw that I was the only one in a company of 80 dancers,” she said, referring to the fact that she was the only black dancer in the company. “I had to remind myself that ABT was my dream company and that I would be giving up had I left.”
She doesn’t shy away from talking about the lack of diversity within the international ballet community. And she embraces her position at the forefront of change.
“I think I would have had a completely different path had there been more [African-American dancers] before me. Maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard. I don’t know,” Copeland said. “I didn’t know that there would a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level. At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through, to carry the next generation. It’s not me up here, it’s everyone that came before me that got me to this position, and all the little girls that can see themselves through me.”
Copeland’s peers, instructors and critics often remind her that the success she’s found is well-deserved. Though, she adds, she still faces intense scrutiny.
“I go into ballet class every morning. I work my butt off eight hours a day because I know that I have to deliver when I get on stage,” she said. “I have to go out there every night and perform live and prove myself, maybe more so than other dancers, because people are assuming, ‘Why is she getting this attention, is it really based on her dancing?'”
With the celebrated promotion, Copeland anticipates some changes in her life. “I think that the work load will now be a little bit less,” she said. “It will allow me to focus on these major roles. At the same time, every single time you go on stage you’re being looked at, so you can’t hide behind the other swans anymore.”
Asked about the next step, the the ballet star began to cry as she contemplated a dream fulfilled. “It just sounds so surreal to hear those words. No, this is it. My dream had been ABT since I was 13,” Copeland said. “To be a principal dancer is reaching those heights, and now I feel like I can breathe. But [principal dancer] David Hallberg told me this morning, ‘The hard work is just now starting.’ And I love a challenge.”
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