OPinion Leaders—Misty Copeland on Using Her Voice and Being the Role Model of Today

The principal ballet dancer at the ABT shares what fuels her everyday.

Photo: Getty Images

“This is such a funny answer, but Mariah Carey,” says Misty Copeland of the icon who first got her into dance. “Being a biracial girl and not having a lot of confidence…she was representation in a way I’d never seen. She gave me permission to feel beautiful because she was so beautiful and talented.” Fast-forward some years and Copeland, who now counts Carey as a friend, is spoken of in similar reverence. You might recognize her as a face of the New York-based American Ballet Theater, where she became a trailblazer as the first African-American woman to be appointed the company’s principal ballerina in 2015. It’s in this role that Copeland found the confidence to use her voice and platform for good, encouraging everyone to get involved in the arts and to bring more inclusive faces to the world of dance.

“The first time I saw ABT perform live was when I was fifteen years old,” shares Copeland with equal parts wonder and bemusement. “That was the beginning for me. The first time I realized, “Oh! This is what I’m doing and it’s going to be with that company.” She’s performed in all the classics ranging from her much lauded double role as Odette / Odile in Swan Lake to Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and danced on-stage with icons including Marcelo Gomes and Roberto Bolle. “Our artistic director gives us the opportunity as principal dancers to experience dancing with different partners,” explains Copeland. “Herman Cornejo is my dance partner as principal dancer. He’s small like I am so we work well together,” she adds with a laugh. And while lots of buzzy names have passed through ABT’s hallowed halls, is there anyone Copeland hopes to perform with? “Mikhail Baryshnikov [and] Desmond Richardson. He was the first black principal dancer at ABT. It’s been a dream of mine and he’s still dancing.” That desire to continue to learn and share those findings with her community has fueled Copeland throughout the pandemic.

Copeland’s quarantine routine has focused on self-healing and continued efforts to strengthen her mind and body. “I always start my day with something calming, but physical,” shares the dancer who rises at nine and puts on a playlist to escape into another universe. “Something that will remove me from the realities of the world,” is how she describes her mix of old-school R&B and soul, although she’s recently taken a shine to Super Bowl performer Jazmine Sullivan. Empowering others has also been on her agenda, and this past May, she along with 31 other dancers from across the globe created a GoFundMe campaign called Swans for Relief to provide financial support and assistance to dancers who are off the stage during the pandemic. “Ballet is a universal language in every country,” says Copeland. “I felt it was a great example too set for the United States that we can come together with different communities and cultures and work towards a singular goal and bring funds to dancers to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.” They’ve raised over $300,000 and are still moving forward. Her hope is that by seeing different faces, she and her colleagues, will inspire the next generation of dancers to think beyond their occupation. “It’s important to know the power we hold because we’re dancers and because we’re artists,” explains Copeland. “We’re setting an example [and] it’s our responsibility to lead.” Copeland has long championed social justice and used her platform last summer during the rise of the BLM movement to raise awareness about racial injustice and encourages her community to do the same. “Starting my own Foundation and taking the tools I’ve learned…will help communities in a way that ballet helped me,” adds Copeland. “Not just in terms of getting an opportunity to dance with a company like ABT, but because of the way it shaped me as a person. That’s why the arts are so vital.” As for a message she hopes everyone can take away from her efforts? “Artists have a powerful voice and I would encourage this next generation to believe that they are more than just dancers.” And just as precise as her movements on stage, Copeland’s message is on point.

Credits All products featured on OliviaPalermo.com are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Related Articles