Famous Athlete of the Week: Misty Copeland

Anya Gruber ’16
Associate Editor

Misty Copeland took an unusual path to the top of the ballet world. She only began taking ballet classes in middle school – most people who go on to become professional ballet dancers begin at a much younger age – after the coach of her drill team recommended she try it out at the local Boys and Girls Club. Copeland was immediately recognized for her innate talent by her teacher, Cindy Bradley, who went on to mentor the young prodigy. Ballet was a creative outlet for Copeland, who described herself as an anxious child and had a tumultuous youth.

Copeland is also a nontraditional professional dancer. As an art and a sport, ballet is characterized by paradoxes. Although ballet dancers have the incredible strength of any soccer or baseball player, they must hide that behind organza skirts and light, graceful movements. Ballet dancers are not supposed to look like athletes. Rather, they are expected to maintain a sylphlike frame to reflect the ideals of willowy heroines of classical ballets such as “Swan Lake” and “Giselle.” Ballet companies are also historically comprised of primarily white dancers.

Copeland does not conform to these long-held standards, between her obviously muscular build and her race. She is outspoken about the self-doubt that plagued her while pursuing her dream of becoming a professional dancer, as she was highly aware that she was not the kind of dancer that most top-tier companies would hire.

“I had moments of doubting myself and wanting to quit because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African American woman to make it to this level,” Copeland said at a news conference in New York in June. But with her popularity and meteoric rise to the top, she is changing what it means to be a dancer. She has no trepidation in branding herself as an athlete, first and foremost, most strongly exemplified by her partnership with the athletic clothing company Under Armour.

Copeland made history last June when she became the first African American to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, one of the most prestigious and prominent companies in the United States, where she had been a company dancer since 2000. She has performed in dozens of productions, including “Firebird” and “La Bayadère.” She was also the first African American dancer in the American Ballet Theatre’s history to play the role of Clara in “The Nutcracker.”

Even though she is now a principal dancer at a major company, Copeland continues to face racial discrimination and criticism about her athleticism. However, Copeland is also famous for her poise and eloquence in addressing those who oppose her. As she said in an interview with NPR, “I think it’s more important to think of the people that I am influencing and helping to see a broader picture of what beauty is.”

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