During the pandemic, while most of us were figuring out how to navigate our workdays through Zoom, Misty Copeland had plenty going on to keep her on her toes — but she wasn’t performing on the stage of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
The ABT’s principal dancer (Copeland was the first Black woman to be promoted to the position) wrote two books, launched her nonprofit foundation, became cofounder of an athletic-wear company, taught a MasterClass ballet program, and guided projects in development at her production company. Oh yeah — and she had a baby, too.
Resilience and a can-do attitude have served her well from the time she took her first ballet class at a Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif., at the age of 13.
She was living in a small motel room with her mother and five siblings at the time and wasn’t aware that most of her competition had been taking ballet lessons since they were toddlers. She’d soon discover that the majority of ballerinas were white, petite, privileged, and oftentimes starving themselves to stay in the game.
“As a young 20-something-year-old, I don’t think I was savvy enough to understand the politics of things,” she recalls.
Yet Copeland, ballet’s most outspoken ambassador to underserved communities, never considered abandoning her dream. “I think growing up without a lot and watching my mother survive and overcome so much instilled the fighter in me,” she says.
Copeland laughs when asked whether she considers herself an overachiever, but then she carefully reflects on her 24/7 schedule. “I think there’s just always more to be done,” she says. “I definitely say yes to way too many things, but I have amazing people in my life who help to provide balance. People like my husband, and my manager, Gilda, and other mentors I’ve had in my life, have helped me not run myself into the ground.”
The indomitable dancer may be facing her biggest challenge yet as she prepares to return to the stage for ABT’s 2023 season after three years away. She recently turned 40, and only seven months have passed since her son, Jackson, was born. “I just had a baby, and my body is completely different now,” she says. “I have to look at myself in a different way.”
Copeland’s respect for her body has allowed her to let it heal before subjecting it to any rigorous fitness regimens. “I’m really interested to see, when I get back into ballet class, what’s going to be difficult or different, and how I can get to that new place that I want to be. I’ve reset my technique several times throughout my career to be the best dancer I can be. So, I understand that mindset of switching things up and trying something new and starting from scratch. I enjoy that journey.”
Experience Life recently connected with the new mom and discussed mothering, mentoring, and her excitement about returning to the stage next year.
Q&A With Misty Copeland
Experience Life | Let’s start out with the latest and greatest news: You’re a mom! How did you manage to have a baby without the world knowing about it?
Misty Copeland | I’ve managed throughout my career to keep the things I want to keep private, private. I just dressed and wore things that didn’t show off my belly. I wanted to keep it something that my husband and I enjoyed and experienced together and could keep to ourselves. It was an awesome pregnancy, and our life is amazing with Jackson now. I never could have anticipated the joy he brings us.
EL | Your latest book, The Wind at My Back, comes out in November. What inspired you to write this book on the heels of your last book, Black Ballerinas?
MC | Mentorship has been a huge part of my life, dating back to when I was 7 years old. So this book is really about sharing the life lessons I learned from my mentor, Raven Wilkinson.
Raven came into my life at a critical time in my professional career. She showed me a purpose for myself that was bigger than me as an individual or my career. This book is about how she influenced, inspired, and guided me on my journey to become a principal dancer.
Writing Black Ballerinas just before this was a nice buildup to telling Raven’s story, because I was telling the stories of the women who came before me. Raven was the first Black woman to dance in an elite ballet company in the United States, and I hope it will inspire others to go after these incredible relationships with their elders.
EL | You’re involved in countless mentoring programs, and many of your books and outside projects are tributes to the women who have helped guide you and your career. Why is mentorship so important to you?
MC | I can’t imagine not doing it. I think it’s a powerful example to set for the next generation. It’s a beautiful thing, to respect your elders and to continue to carry on their stories and create a beautiful lineage for generations to come.
It’s not just about people coming into your life and giving you advice — you have to be ready for it and open to it. I tell a lot of the young people I mentor that there is work to be done on their end as well. If you’re not present and ready to take it all in, it’s not going to do you any good.
EL | How has your husband, Olu Evans, been a support for you?
MC | I moved to New York City when I was 17 years old and met Olu while he was finishing law school at Emory University. He was my first boyfriend, and he had a lot more life experience than I did.
He’s helped me on this journey to navigate the world I’m in and have the different conversations necessary with bosses, choreographers, or whoever it is. Dancers aren’t often guided that way. As performers, we’re taught to be seen and not heard. Olu helped me find my voice.
I credit his mother, who is an incredibly strong woman and was a single mom, for making him so introspective, attentive, and secure. He’s got a special understanding of people.
EL | You launched the Misty Copeland Foundation in September. Why was this important to the work you do?
MC | The foundation provides outreach to children in under-resourced communities and engages their minds, bodies, and hearts with programs and learning through dance. We will also be advancing the art form of ballet, through greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our Be Bold program will offer a first step in dance education, especially for boys and girls of color.
EL | When you started dancing, did you plan on using dance as a platform for your activism?
MC | Growing up, that was a big part of my identity, navigating that space of being biracial and a Black woman in a white space. I always stood firm in who I was in that space.
By the time I became a professional dancer, it hit me that it was bigger than I thought. I had the opportunity to be seen by so many young Black people who could look at me and think, Oh, that’s a direction I could go. And now it’s been years and years of putting in the work, doing the outreach, and speaking and mentoring children that’s built this thing.
EL | You’ve been a role model for women and body image. What’s your advice for women who are too hard on themselves and their bodies?
MC | The first thing I always say to the younger dancers I mentor is, “There’s so much power in our individuality and uniqueness as human beings.” We lose that when we compare ourselves to other people or try to be someone we’re not. It’s about being your healthiest self and having a healthy, strong body you can be proud of.
EL | With so much going on, how do you manage to find some me-time?
MC | It’s a hard balance. I don’t have that much of a personal life outside of my family. I’ve always kept a small circle of friends, and I have a pretty strict schedule when I’m performing.
But at the end of the season, I make sure I make the time to get away with my husband and rest. We put that time into my schedule. During the season, I’m pretty much on. During our rehearsal season, we have Sundays and Mondays off, and I literally try to do nothing. For the most part, I will sleep all day!