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Groundbreaking Dancer Misty Copeland on Ballet Bodies and Black Swan

Written on May 25, 2012 at 9:23 am , by

Copeland is an ideal example of flexibility and elegance. (Photo by Gregg Delman)

She didn’t slip on ballerina flats until age 13, but soon after that, Misty Copeland knew her calling. “I was never told that I was too old, but I did have an extremely late start compared to most ballet dancers. It takes a lot of training to do classical ballet,” Copeland says. “I loved it immediately, though, and the first time I stepped on stage, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Within three months, Copeland was en pointe (dancing on the tips of her toes, as you might think of when you picture a ballerina). By age 17, just four years after she first began training, Copeland was accepted into the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT). She was just the third African American female soloist to join the group.

Copeland, who has now been with ABT for 12 years, is now a part of another selective group: the groundbreaking women highlighted in the PBS/AOL partnership MAKERS. We spoke with the dancer to learn more about her training, whether she feels pressure to look a certain way and how she feels about that recent Oscar-nominated wild ballet film.

  • On the demographics of ballet dancing… “Not many black women succeed in the ballet world because it’s not a big part of American culture. In Europe, people go to ballet or opera like we go to movies. Ballet hasn’t been exposed to the urban community, plus it’s hard for dance companies to accept what they don’t usually see. I’ve had periods when I struggled to get promoted as a soloist.”
  • A typical day of training includes… “My training never ends. Even when we have time off, I take classes daily. Spring is the most intense period, so for six days a week, I train from 10:15 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and perform in the show from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. And on Wednesday and Saturday, we have two shows a day with rehearsals in between.”
  • How I feel about the ballet body pressure… “Our bodies are our instruments. In an elite company, you have to look a certain way. In football, you wouldn’t have a tiny defender. I’ve learned how to take care of myself by eating right and seeing a physical therapist and massage therapist.”
  • The move that will help you get a ballet body… “To strengthen your legs and work your calf muscles, bring your feet in first position [a 'v' position with heels together and toes apart]. Bend knees into a demi-plie, then straighten legs and lift up to toes.”
  • My reaction to Black Swan “I tried to find the positives in it and similarities to our lives, but it’s just entertainment. In a company, you are a family.”

To hear more from Copeland, check out her videos on makers.com.