From her first ballet class, at age 13, Copeland set out to be a professional dancer. As a Black girl entering a discipline dominated by white performers and appreciated mostly by white audiences, she knew the odds were stacked against her. But she pressed on, joining American Ballet Theatre and in 2015 becoming its first Black female principal dancer. She has broken ground in roles from Clara to Juliet, published several books, pushed for more diversity in the arts, and is building a charitable foundation.
HBR: Why did you choose ballet as a career?
Copeland: I love the sense of structure that it gave me at an early age, which has helped me navigate the twists and turns of my life and career, as a dancer, a writer, an activist, and in my production company. Yes, I love performing, and being onstage, but ballet also made me feel that I was a part of something bigger than myself and gave me an outlet and an escape from the circumstances I grew up in. The discipline, the rigor, the sacrifice—those are beautiful things that children in particular should experience, not necessarily to become professionals but to develop as people. Of course, there are many things about the ballet culture that I think need to be reassessed. But ballet gave me so many tools to be a leader in my community. At the heart of this hundreds-of-years-old art form there’s a technique and structure that builds that type of person.
You came from a home that was economically unstable at times. You were also a Black girl trying to break into a very white field. When did you realize that you could overcome those challenges and become a professional ballerina?
Because I started at the age of 13, which is very late, it was immediate. That was the plan. I was given an opportunity by my teacher, Cynthia Bradley, with the intent of training to become a professional. Her attitude was: You have the potential, and I’m going to invest in you because I think you can make the ballet a career. So the first week into my first class—on a basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club—I wanted to go on to dance for American Ballet Theatre. That was my goal, and within four years I was in New York performing on the stage at Lincoln Center.
That’s a lot of pressure for a 13-year-old, particularly when you’re dancing with kids who started at age three. How did you cope?
I never saw it as pressure, I think because I was so naive about the ballet world. My family was, too. We were all new to it. But once I was introduced, I thought, There’s no way I can go on without having this in my life. I was so immersed in it daily, and I was gaining things that I hadn’t had access to before, like stability and a release for things I couldn’t communicate. It allowed me to blossom and grow, feeling that I was good at something for the first time. It was fun, never like a daunting task. I think I was 14 the first time I saw ABT perform live in Los Angeles, and it was just OK, that’s it. That’s my future. I was so in love with it that it became something I felt I had to do.
Your rise was very quick. But there were setbacks: your body changing as a late teen, early injuries. How did you push through?
It was extremely difficult. My path was of course unique, but it’s common for young athletes and artists to be called prodigies and then have the realities of how they evolve not match expectations. In the ballet world we might come into the professional sphere between the ages of 16 and 19, and our bodies are still changing, and we’re still learning about who we want to be. So we need a better support structure. Mentors were what helped me survive. There are so many dancers who don’t—or can’t—make it past that hurdle because they don’t have people to guide them. I was very fortunate to have people who wanted to be there for me.
How did you find those mentors?
My first ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and Elizabeth Cantine, the public school teacher who introduced me to Cindy, stayed in my corner. But then, once I moved to New York, I had these amazing Black women who came into my life like angels. That’s something innate in Black culture: When so few of us are in certain spaces, and opportunities are limited, you want to be there as a support. Victoria Rowell was one of the first. She was an actress, but before that she was a classical dancer in ABT’s junior company. She didn’t get the opportunity I did, so she ventured into another art form. But she understood that path as a Black woman and reached out to me: When ABT performed in Los Angeles, she left a note for me on the bulletin board at the stage door. She invited me to her home and spoke to me like a human: “I’ve been there.” That opened the doors for understanding that there were so many others to connect with—that, even though I was the only Black woman in ABT for the first decade of my career, I shouldn’t feel alone. After that I met Susan Fales-Hill, an ABT board director. She wanted to be there to keep my head in the game in a healthy way. And I’ve had so many others follow.
Still, I imagine it must have been tough to be “the only” for so long. How did you deal with that—and the weight of having to serve as a role model?
Yes, during those 10 years, there were microaggressions, sometimes daily, and many times I almost quit. One of my saving graces, though, was my ability to step back and watch and learn, especially from the Black men who came and went through ABT. I saw how they responded when they didn’t get opportunities, how they interacted with their white counterparts, and how their careers went. I learned how to navigate and bring up issues with the artistic staff and be heard and accepted without being too aggressive, which is the label that’s put on us. You don’t want to go in there angry or upset, because then you’re the “angry Black woman.” You don’t want to cry, because they’ll see you as weak or overly emotional. Still, I was very up-front and clear about what I was going through, and I never hid the fact that these things were connected to my race. As my amazing mentors came into my life, I learned even better ways to have those conversations and push the company to do more. The pressure to represent for others came later, once I had more exposure and was a principal dancer.
What did it take to get to that principal dancer role—essentially the top of your field?
Patience, consistency, allowing myself to be open and vulnerable enough to continue to learn and grow, and staying strong when obstacles were thrown at me—such as when certain roles that I clearly should have been cast in went to others. It was believing that my path was never a straight line or like anyone else’s. I didn’t allow myself to get down and think, Wow, I’m way too old to be promoted at this point. There’s no chance. Instead it was, Well, I’ve done all these other things on my own timeline, so I’m just going to keep pushing and work to get to where I want to. It was also having Alexei Ratmansky come in as the choreographer for ABT, see the potential in me, and give me the lead role in his version of Firebird—not just following the guidelines that every company does and thinking, She doesn’t fit the mold. The audience that came in for that because I was Black and young was different from what the ballet world had ever seen before, and it changed the perspective on what I could do for the company.
As you continue to advocate for more diversity at ABT, and within ballet more broadly, do you feel you’re making progress?
With the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic, the art world has had time to step back and reassess. I’ve been having these conversations for 20 years, and only in the past two have I seen people really listen. Before, it was checking off boxes, like “Let’s put Misty’s face on this diversity initiative.” Now the discussions are more honest, and they’re coming from a real place of wanting to create change. I understand that this is a slow process. It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep it going.
Are you now a little less careful about how you navigate?
Yes, for a while now! I’m very fortunate to have a platform, that kind of muscle behind me, to speak openly and honestly. I’m a huge supporter of classical ballet, and I want to address the things that need to change and bring it to underrepresented, underserved communities. The real beauty now is that other Black dancers maybe feel more empowered to talk about their experiences and not worry that they’re going to be reprimanded or punished for it.
How has your approach to the work evolved as you’ve aged?
Well, the older you get, the less you can depend on your body physically. And as an artist, you have different priorities in what you want to focus on. I’m constantly reminding myself that the end goal in ballet, as in any art form, is to tell a story. That’s what will keep people engaged. So for me, it’s been tackling the characters and making them feel as human as possible so that someone who’s never taken a ballet class could come in and understand what you’re saying.
You mentioned that you’re a writer, too. You’re working on your foundation. You do lots of endorsement work. How do you balance your time?
I’ve got a great manager, and it’s just prioritizing. My ballet training has always been number one and at the forefront of every conversation I have before I step into any collaboration or partnership. Everything’s going to help the next thing. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do it all.
Do you ever think about retirement and your next stage of life?
Absolutely. I know from my own experience that turnover in a company is important. You need to give the next generation a chance to learn from you, but then you also need to give them opportunities. ABT went through a really difficult time when a couple of cohorts of dancers lost out because there was no real movement at the top. So that’s always in the back of my mind. During the pandemic I got a taste of not traveling and performing, of what life would be like without being predominantly onstage. It allowed me to really focus on other things that I previously couldn’t put my whole self into and think about moving on in a way that will let me continue to grow and stay fulfilled.
But I bet you really wanted to get back on that stage. You couldn’t retire during a pandemic.
I have a few more years in me for sure, at least at ABT, and then hopefully I’ll still do some other things on the side.
What advice do you give to the up-and-coming dancers you mentor now?
I just remind them that it’s not about the videos you post or the endorsements you get through social media. It’s about the work you’re putting in. There’s no way to go on stage and be the dancer and the artist you want to be if you’re not prepared, focused, and grounded.