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- Official Site of Misty Copeland
- American Ballet Theatre – Biography of Misty Copeland
- Misty Copeland – Children’s Encyclopedia (Ages 8-11)
- Misty Copeland – Student Encyclopedia (Ages 11 and up)
Misty Copeland, (born September 10, 1982, Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.), American ballet dancer who, in 2015, became the first African American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
Misty Copeland and her siblings grew up with a single mother whose several failed marriages resulted in financial instability. When young, Copeland moved with her family from Kansas City to San Pedro, California. Her first formal encounter with dance was on the drill team of her middle school. The team’s coach noticed her talent and recommended that she attend ballet classes taught by Cynthia Bradley at the local Boys & Girls Club. Copeland’s natural ability was quickly recognized by Bradley, and, though age 13 was a late start for a serious dance career, Copeland began taking classes with Bradley at the San Pedro Ballet School. When her training became more intensive, Copeland moved in with Bradley and her family in order to be closer to the studio. In 1998, at age 15, she won first prize in the ballet category of the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards. That summer she was accepted with a full scholarship into the intensive summer program at the San Francisco Ballet.
That same year a custody battle ensued between the Bradleys and Copeland’s mother, who, at that time, was living with her children in a motel. Copeland moved back in with her family and began attending San Pedro High School. She continued studying ballet at Lauridsen Ballet Centre in Torrance, California. In 2000 Copeland won another full scholarship, this time to the ABT’s intensive summer program. That year she was also named the ABT’s National Coca-Cola Scholar. At the end of the summer, she was invited to join the ABT studio company, a selective program for young dancers still in training. Soon after, in 2001, she became a member of the ABT’s corps de ballet, the only African American woman in a group of 80 dancers. Though she was challenged by her difference, not only in skin colour but also in body type, always more full-figured than her peers (and regularly reminded), she nevertheless climbed the ranks by virtue of her exceptional skill. In 2007 she became the company’s first African American female soloist in two decades (Anne Benna Sims and Nora Kimball had preceded her). Notable performances included the title role in The Firebird (2012), Gulnare in Le Corsaire (2013), Swanilda in Coppélia (2014), and the dual lead role, Odette/Odile, in Swan Lake (2014).
Copeland’s inspiring story made her a role model and a pop icon. In 2009 Copeland appeared in a music video for the song “Crimson and Clover” by Prince. She also performed live with him on his tour the following year. Copeland became a strong advocate for diversifying the field of ballet and creating access for dancers of varying racial and economic backgrounds. She served on the advisory committee for the ABT’s Project Plié, a program (started in 2013) offering training and mentorship to dance teachers in racially diverse communities around the country as well as in Boys & Girls Clubs. Copeland published the memoir Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (2014) and had endorsements with companies such as Coach (leather accessories) and Under Armour (athletic wear). In June 2015 the ABT chose Copeland as its first African American female principal dancer in the company’s 75-year history. In August of that year, she had her Broadway debut in the role of Ivy Smith in Leonard Bernstein’s musical On the Town.
In 2018 Copeland made her feature film debut, fittingly playing the ballerina princess in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s 19th-century ballet.
In addition to her memoir, Copeland also wrote Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You (2017) and Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy (2021) as well as the children’s books Firebird (2014) and Bunheads (2020).
Misty Copeland made history in 2015 when she became the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. Now, she’s dancing her way onto the big screen with a major role in Disney’s new movie The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
Copeland is without a doubt the most famous ballerina in America (she’s even been turned into a Barbie doll). Here’s how much she earns for her fancy footwork.
Copeland earns six figures as a principal dancer
Misty Copeland at the premiere of Disney’s Nutcracker And The Four Realms. | Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Copeland’s path to ballet success wasn’t exactly traditional. She didn’t start dancing until she was 13 – much later than when most dancers begin their training. Money was tight (at one point, her family had to move into a motel) and keeping up with lessons was a struggle. But she stuck with dance, and six years later, she joined the American Ballet Theatre – widely regarded as the most prestigious ballet company in America — as a corps member. Copeland was a minority in the ballet world, which is mostly white, and her curvy body didn’t fit the mold of the typical dancer. Still, she rose through the ranks, becoming a soloist in 2007 and a principal in 2015.
Soloist at the ABT earn between $50,000 and $100,000, Copeland told ESPN in 2014, adding that she was at the top of that range. Once she was promoted to principal, her salary would have increased as well. The ABT’s two top-paid dancers earned $158,772 and $188,157 in 2016, according to the Form 990 the company filed with the IRS, but Copeland wasn’t one of them. A rough guess would put her salary somewhere between $100,000 and $158,000. (There are 15 principal dancers at the ABT.)
Copeland earns far more than most dancers
Those number might make it seem like being a ballerina is pretty lucrative, but they’re on the high end of dancer salaries. In a 2017 Dance magazine poll, many dancers and choreographers said they earned less than $30,000 a year, even though they were working full-time. Dancers at prestigious companies like the Joffrey Ballet and the Washington Ballet reported earning between $670 and $1,015 a week when the company was in season, according to a 2013 report in Pointe magazine.
Misty Copeland (Photo: Under Armour)
Our series “How I became a …” digs into the stories of accomplished and influential people, finding out how they got to where they are in their careers.
When Misty Copeland took her very first ballerina class on the basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club, her life began clicking into place. Following her humble beginnings on the basketball court, Copeland took the stage years later as the first-ever African American female principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre. Copeland has since spent years dancing en pointe (on the tips of the toes) and inspiring women and men around the world, performing everywhere from Prince’s purple piano to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House.
USA TODAY caught up with the ballerina, author, and spokesmodel to talk about everything from finding ballet as a young child and dancing for 12 hours a day to diversifying the field of ballet and realizing that everyone is just human.
Question: How did you get your start with dance?
Misty Copeland: I was one of six children, so we didn’t have a ton of opportunity to really have any kind of individual chance to go play a sport or go take a dance class. We didn’t have the means at all to that – we were constantly moving from city to city and not always having a home. When I discovered who Mariah Carey was, I had this innate, visceral response and she became this kind of protection for me. Whenever there was chaos or whatever was going on in my life, she was this escape. That turned into movement being an escape. I ended up auditioning for the dance team at my middle school, and they made me captain even though I literally had no dance experience. I was 13 at that time, and that’s when I was discovered by a teacher that saw a lot of potential in me and told me to take ballet class. (There was a) free class at the Boys & Girls Club, so I took my first ballet class on the basketball court.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
Copeland: It’s all over the place and constantly changing, but if I were preparing for our spring season, it would be 7:15 a.m. to 7 p.m. rehearsing. At this point, we’re preparing to go on tour and preparing and creating new works for upcoming seasons, so I’m doing that stuff but also am working on so many other things that I’m doing outside of ABT. Just meetings with my production company, the book, interviews, speaking engagements, things like that. It’s exciting to not have a monotonous, every day the same.
Misty Copeland teaches online MasterClass AP Entertainment
Q: What is your favorite part about your job?
Copeland: Performing, but also traveling.
Q: What do you credit your success to?
Copeland: Support, mentorship, amazing examples, and incredible black women throughout my life that have stayed with me, making sure that I was going to live out what I think my purpose is, as well as my husband.
Q: How do you balance work, life, and such a busy schedule?
Copeland: I think having an amazing team. I wouldn’t be able to find any balance if I didn’t have a team who I trusted that was truly looking out for my best interest, and could literally just be like, “wake up and go here!” That definitely allows me to be present in whatever I’m doing from day-to-day, which has been a learning process. When I first started working with them, I had this struggle with letting go of control, and when you’re so focused and stressed about what’s to come, especially as a dancer, you can’t just be free and in the moment. They have helped me to find my balance.
Q: What have been some of your biggest career highs?
Copeland: Definitely my first performance of “Firebird” in New York City. It was a really, really special night and a very important season for me. I was still a soloist (when I was given)] that role at American Ballet Theatre, and the audience was full of brown people for the first time ever. I could open people’s eyes and minds to what was possible in terms of diversifying – not just the dancers on the stage, but the people in the audience – and allowing them to feel accepted, and that this was a space they belonged in as well. And then, being promoted to principal dancer. Those are two moments that still, to this day, seem surreal.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Copeland: I think it’s just about showing the youth that hearing rejection and receiving rejection or negativity does not equate to failure. Just to know that you have support around you and that you can’t do it on your own and that’s not a bad thing – these are lessons that I’ve learned and that I just try to give to young people, just to let them know that they may look at me and see this perfect image of what they think my life is like, and then I say that I’ve probably experienced exactly what you’re going through. I think it’s important for people to see that we’re all human.
• What’s your coffee order? A matcha green tea latte
• What’s your favorite book? Probably something by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m also definitely in children’s books mode, so when I think about “Where the Wild Things Are” or those types of creative books that I feel like influenced me so much growing up
• What’s your favorite song at the moment? “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” by Lauryn Hill
• Who has been one of your biggest mentors? I’ve had so many that have come and gone but made equally as big of an impact, but Raven Wilkinson – who passed last year – was probably the biggest influence and motivator for me to see my capabilities and see my career in a different way. It was beyond just being on the stage and having a voice in that way, but to be able to understand my purpose and what I could represent for so many because she did that for me.
• What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done? Dancing on top of Prince’s purple grand piano at Madison Square Garden
W hen Misty Copeland first joined the American Ballet Theater, one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world, at age 17, she couldn’t help but feel like an outsider. “We don’t know in history that black women, from the beginning of time in ballet, have been told to lighten their skin, and to shade their nose in a certain way to look white,” Copeland told an audience at WeWork 500 7th Avenue in New York City on Sept. 17. “A big part of my youth at American Ballet Theater was hearing those words.”
Copeland, however, more than proved that she belonged. In 2015, she became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. That same year, she was named to the TIME 100, TIME’s annual list of the world’s most influential people. Since then, Copeland has inked endorsement deals with Under Armour, Estee Lauder, Dannon and other companies.
Her road to the top of ballet was an unusual one. “I had a very chaotic upbringing,” she said. One of six children raised by a single mother, Copeland says she was living in a motel when she took her first ballet lesson, at 13, at a Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif.
Many ballerinas begin training soon after they start walking. But a late start didn’t stop Copeland. By the time she joined the American Ballet Theater, Copeland stood out both because of her graceful performances, and inescapably, her race. “My first three of four years in the company, it was the first time it hit me that I was alone,” Copeland said. “That I’m the only black woman. It was the first time race was brought to my attention. It was shocking.” For example, Copeland says at one point she was told she couldn’t perform in the second act of Swan Lake, the popular ballet first performed in late 19th-century Russia, because of her skin color. Some people were whispering that she shouldn’t be in Swan Lake at all, Copeland says.
As principal dancer, Copeland has taken a special interest in mentoring dancers of color and diversifying ballet. She has responded to letters from aspiring dancers and remained connected to the Boys & Girls Club. In 2016, Mattel released a Barbie doll in Copeland’s likeness. Copeland made sure no skin tone was lightened. No one shaded her nose. “That was extremely important to me,” she said. “It’s so empowering for young girls to grow up with a brown Barbie that’s a ballerina.”
Copeland’s talk, which was moderated by TIME correspondent Haley Sweetland Edwards, was the third event in the TIME 100 x WeWork Speaker Series.