Black History Month: Misty Copeland, The Prodigy of American Ballet

Ty’Shae Cousar
Staff Writer

A_E, 2_21, Misty Copeland, Ty_shae_ Cousar, PC Kent G. Becker.jpg

PC: Kent G. Becker

Published in Print February 21, 2018.


The Carolinian misreported Misty Copeland as the primary principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland is one of several principal dancers. The following article has been updated accordingly.

Every day of the year should be celebrated when it comes to African American accomplishments. February, being Black History Month, is just one time of the year in which African American success is most recognized. There are many African American heroes who have made American history such as Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Although we should not forget the African American heroes who came before us, we should also acknowledge the ones in our present day.

In June 2015, Misty Copeland became the first African American female to be named a principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Though there are have been other black ballet dancers that have become principals in the United States, including Debra Austin with the Pennsylvania Ballet, Lauren Anderson with the Houston Ballet, Myrna Kamara with the Miami City Ballet and Tai Jimenez with the Boston Ballet, Copeland has made and is currently making her mark at ABT. She, like those that came before her, is shattering glass ceilings for younger African American ballet dancers who wish to hold higher positions in the competitive world of dance.

Misty Copeland graced the Earth on Sept. 10, 1982, in Kansas City, Missouri. Copeland was the fourth child out of six siblings coming from a multiracial heritage background. While her mother had successful relationships throughout the years, they eventually settled down in the coasts of San Pedro, California. Copeland’s mother and her children suffered physical and mental abuse from her fourth husband who constantly slung racial slurs at her.

Being the uneasy child, Copeland found comfort in activities that she loved. She found solace in movement and created her own dance routines at home with music by Mariah Carey. Copeland’s spark of ballet arose when her teacher from her drill team in middle school suggested she take ballet classes. She had never trained in dance, let alone had been exposed to dance until she took classes.

Under the wing of her instructor, Cindy Bradley, Copeland was deemed a prodigy by being able to quickly create choreographed movements and being able to dance en pointe after a short time in ballet training.

Home life was difficult for Copeland, so eventually the then 13-year-old  moved in with her instructor to flee from the dysfunction at home and focus on her blossoming dance career.

As she continued her training in ballet, she began to star in great productions such as “The Chocolate Nutcracker.” After attending an dance intensive on a scholarship, she started climbing the ladder up to flourishing her professional career.

Copeland’s mother and her instructor Bradley had a minor dispute in the custody of Copeland, but eventually, the request was dropped and Misty was returned back to her mother’s guardianship. Though Copeland experienced heavy hardship, she refused to let go of her dream.

After attending Lauridsen Ballet Centre, she attended a summer intensive at the American Ballet Theatre. She then joined the American Ballet Theatre’s dance company in September of 2000 and became part of its corps de ballet the following year.

Copeland participated in an array of productions such as Marius Petipa’s “La Bayadere,” Alexei Ratmansky’s “Firebird” and “The Nutcracker.”

She faced several severe injuries towards the beginning of her American Ballet Theatre career. One time, she had fractured vertebrae, forcing her to wear a brace. The injury required some time off from dance. Later, she stopped dancing for a brief amount of time due to fractures in her left shin.

Misty Copeland has achieved a lot in her career, especially being a fast learner in a genre that takes years to master. Now, she is a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre.

Copeland has also been recognized for her achievements. In 2013, Copeland won the Young, Gifted, and Black honor at The Black Girls Rock! Awards. Copeland also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford in November 2014 for her contributions to classical ballet and helping to diversify the art.

“Finding ballet was like finding this missing piece of myself,” Copeland said in a previous interview with Glamour. Copeland is a trailblazer that has paved a path and inspires young brown girls to believe in themselves to be able to break down barriers even in an industry that has looked down on them. She has also proven that any dream and anything is possible when you have the right people to support you.

Categories: A & E, Arts & Entertainment, Visual & Performance

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1 reply

  1. She’s not “the” principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre (ABT), she’s “a” principal dancer with ABT. In fact, she’s one of sixteen principal dancers (male and female) with the company. ABT is made up of over 90 dancers overall. And it’s not an “elected” position either. That’s simply not how ballet companies work. As for “being just one of the few African American female performers in classical ballet”: a more accurate statement would be that she’s one of HUNDREDS of African American female ballerinas. Yes, hundreds, once you factor in every black female corp de ballet dancer, soloist, and principal who has ever danced with a major ballet company. Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), alone- being a predominately black/multi-ethnic classical ballet company- has had a majority of African-American ballerinas for decades.

    Now, her history-making status lies only with ABT. She’s far from the first-ever black principal ballerina. The path was well-paved long before Misty came along. Black women (and men) have been thriving and surviving in ballet for decades. As far as black principal ballerinas in the U.S. go, Debra Austin became the 1st African-American principal ballerina in a major international American ballet company (Pennsylvania Ballet) in 1982. Prior to that, she was hand-picked by Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet (NYCB) where she danced many soloist roles and became the 1st black ballerina at NYCB. In 1990, Lauren Anderson became a principal with Houston Ballet, making her the 2nd African-American principal ballerina in a major American company. Not long after that, Myrna Kamara (another NYCB alumna) became a principal with Miami City Ballet, making her the 3rd African-American principal ballerina with a major int’l American company where she received critical acclaim for her performances in numerous Balanchine ballets and more. She was also a principal with Béjart Ballet and is still dancing professionally. In 2006, Tai Jimenez became a principal with Boston Ballet, making her the 4th African-American principal ballerina in a major American company. Prior to that, Tai was a principal with DTH.

    So this would make Misty the 5th. And so far, all five of these women are the first and only black principal ballerinas in their respective companies. This is not intended to tarnish Misty’s accomplishments, but to merely educate the public and the media, especially, about a generally unfamiliar subject matter; it’s crucial that we get the facts right for the next generation and for those new to ballet, because facts are facts and there’s room for everyone at the table because their stories are equally important and should be told too.

    **And as a North Carolina school, you should be especially aware of Debra Austin, as she is a Ballet Master for Carolina Ballet (now that’s a position you rarely see a black woman hold!) Also, Myrna Kamara was a principal guest artist with Carolina Ballet. Perhaps you can write an article about them.**

    More about Debra:

    And Myrna:
    Myrna & Roberto Bolle/La Scala:


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