A Hard-Won Triumph

Published in the February/March 2014 issue.

Copyright © 2014 by Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland’s eagerly anticipated memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), comes out this March. In these excerpts, the American Ballet Theatre soloist describes her struggles with her body, learning how to ask for what she wants and her triumphant debut in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Firebird.

 

When my second year in American Ballet Theatre’s corps began, I was more than ready to return to the stage. But my body had completely changed. It was a woman’s body, and it felt unfamiliar. I soon realized that ABT, too, was searching for the little girl that I had been.   

 
Finally, the ABT staff called me in to tell me that I needed to lose weight, though those were not the words they used. Instead, the more polite word, ubiquitous in ballet, was lengthening.


“You need to lengthen, Misty,” a staffer said. “Just a little, so that you don’t lose your classical line.”


I was five feet two and just over a hundred pounds. They suggested a nutritionist, but the company would not pay for it. I was trying to survive on a corps member’s salary—$679 a week—in New York, the most expensive of cities.

Who do they think they’re talking to? I would mumble to myself after a long, stressful day. I have so much talent. Why do I have to be stick thin?

But deep down, I knew that my body just wasn’t where it needed to be to perform the classical roles I so loved, or to be in a company as prestigious as ABT. That realization ached.

Gradually, I began to find my balance. It was far from instantaneous. In fact, I think it took me roughly five years truly to understand my body. I learned that my diet was probably 60 to 70 percent of what was causing me to gain more weight than I wanted. So I set about changing my eating habits.

I learned to take care of my body, my instrument, to accept it while ensuring that it’s in the best shape for me to give my all in every performance. And ABT, seeing how hard I had worked, how well I was performing, eventually stopped asking me to lengthen. They came to see that my curves are part of who I am as a dancer, not something I need to lose to become one.

*****

By 2007, I had been in ABT’s corps for six years. Despite my kinship with the black dancers who occasionally passed through ABT, and some wonderful mentors, I continued to feel frustrated and mostly alone.

The bitter truth is I felt that I wasn’t being fully accepted because I was black, that artistic director Kevin McKenzie and other leaders of the company just didn’t see me starring in more classical roles, despite my elegant line and flow.

I began to contemplate leaving.

It was Olu, my first boyfriend, who helped me realize that I did not need to run away from ABT. He truly believed that I had the talent to attain what I wanted, to become a soloist and principal right where I was. But I had to learn to ask for it.

I was very nervous about speaking up for myself. I didn’t want to displease others, to be rejected or misunderstood.

But Olu told me that I had to approach things in a different way, that I couldn’t just feel sorry for myself: I had to fight. There’s an old adage in the black community that we have to be 10 times better just to get as much. I took that to heart. I had to be undeniably excellent. But I also had to let ABT know what I was after.

Slowly, the fog that dampened my confidence began to lift. I made an appointment to talk to Kevin.

“I know contemporary dance is a strength of mine because a lot of ballerinas don’t move like I do,” I told him. “But I was trained as a classical dancer, and that’s what I really want to do.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Kevin said. “You have the talent to do both.”

That was it.

Soon after, there was a new beginning. Kevin decided, at last, to make me a soloist.

I would be the first black soloist with ABT in 20 years. It was an historic breakthrough. I recognized then and now that Kevin had been behind me from the start, pushing me to grow, to mature, to excel. I had waited six long years, and now I was ready, not just to show the world that I was a gifted dancer but that I was a true artist as well.

*****

Kevin told me himself that I’d be learning the lead in Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of The Firebird. I assumed I would be an understudy, but I was still thrilled to be studying Alexei’s new choreography.

I dove into rehearsals, determined that if ever I needed to fill in for the lead, I would be ready. One day after a busy morning of choreographing and improvising, we finally got a five-minute break, and I plopped down on the floor, exhausted, and picked up my phone. I started browsing idly through Twitter as I stretched out my tired legs.

And that’s how I found out.

There was a link to an ABT press release about the official casting for The Firebird. Natalia Osipova, ABT’s guest principal dancer, would be in the first cast.

And I—Misty Copeland—would be the Firebird in the second.

The day of our New York debut of The Firebird, the company had a dress rehearsal. Afterward, I walked out the front doors of the Metropolitan Opera House.

I turned around, and looked up.

It was me, in full blazing color. There was my face, head thrown back in joy, and my body, gleefully leaping into the air on a 24-foot advertisement, waving from the front of the Metropolitan Opera. Misty Copeland. The Firebird. My eyes filled with tears. In all my years of living in New York City, I had never seen a black woman on the façade of the Met.


Copyright © 2014 by Misty Copeland. From the forthcoming book LIFE IN MOTION: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland to be published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.