Since the start of her career at American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has been committed to giving back. “Having taken my first ballet class at a Boys & Girls Club, there was no way for me not to forever keep it a part of my life," she says. Over the past few years, she has expanded her philanthropy. This past November, she traveled to Rwanda with MindLeaps, an organization that provides free dance classes to homeless youth as a way to introduce structure into their lives. Eventually, the program offers vocational training with computer and English classes and sponsors boarding school educations. Here, Copeland shares her weeklong experience in Rwanda, and how dance can transform lives.

I always say that dance saved my life—it gave me every opportunity and made me an intelligent and articulate person. Art can develop you as a human being, and I saw that through MindLeaps. In fact, I don't think I really understood the magnitude of the program until I was in Rwanda. MindLeaps is trying to stop the cycle of poverty, and it's amazing that it all starts with dance.

A few years ago, I met Rebecca Davis, who started the program, through a mutual friend. I was supposed to go three years ago, but had to postpone my trip due to an injury. But we kept in touch and decided that it was the perfect time for me to reschedule, especially with the platform that I have now.

For the past three-plus years, MindLeaps has focused mostly on boys, but last November, I went to Rwanda to help launch the girls' program. They grew up without homes and without having a family structure, for the most part, so if someone just threw them into school, they wouldn't have the skills to flourish. In this program, dance sparks their interest and gets them in the door every day, making a commitment in a way that they have never experienced.

(Photo courtesy MindLeaps)

In the studio surrounded by other people like them, they start to develop skills that I don't think you can learn sitting in a classroom. The classes have a set warm-up, and the program is very structured. There's a little bit of ballet, of course, but it's more about getting their minds to think about choreography and connecting all the parts of their bodies to their brain. And it's about creativity. Once they're caught up with their cognitive skills, MindLeaps introduces IT and English classes.

Each morning I would wake up and have my “selfish" time, when I'd head to the MindLeaps studios and give myself a ballet class. The kids aren't supposed to be there until late morning, but most of them don't have anywhere else to be, so they're there as early as 6 am, just hanging out in the yard. A lot of them would watch me from the window and imitate what I was doing. It was such a beautiful experience to start the day that way.

Afterwards I would watch a shortened version of their typical class and work with them, and then we would just talk. A lot of them didn't speak English, so we had a translator, and they would ask me tons of questions. I would talk about my experiences with dance and where it has taken me.

When I was growing up, I was constantly hiding the fact that my family didn't have a lot of money or that we were living in a motel for a time. When I visited where some of the kids lived, I didn't want to put them in a situation where they would feel like they were being exposed. It was a very strange feeling for me—it brought me back to that place. But they were very open and giving, and seeing where some of them lived was such an eye-opener. One of the teachers, who started out as a kid in the program, had recently lost his mother to AIDS, which is so normal in that community. He lives in a shack that's about the size of my bathroom, with six of his siblings. Seeing it all was so surreal.

(Photo courtesy MindLeaps)

I ended up sponsoring a boy, Ali, to attend boarding school. Seeing the underground tunnel where he had been sleeping, and then the boarding school where he is sleeping now, makes me think about everything that I have—that I'm so grateful to have.

I could see the program working, and it was incredible. Rather than just giving people money and putting them in school, it develops the skills that will help them flourish. I spent time with some of the boys who went through the program from the beginning, and it's changing the cycle of their families' lives. They'll have opportunities for real jobs, so that their children won't end up in the same position they were in. And dance is what got them in the door. Seeing it firsthand reconfirmed all of those things that I felt deep inside of me about my own experience.

It's so fulfilling as a human and as an artist to help someone else, and to lift them up. That's so much a part of my message in the mentorships that I have, and the women who have mentored me. It's a beautiful thing—giving, and taking—that I think every person should experience.

Show Comments ()
Richmond Ballet dancers in "An Open Later..." by Matthew Frain. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

What's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

The Bolshoi Premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina

Last July Hamburg Ballet presented the world premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina, a modern adaptation on Leo Tolstoy's famous novel. Hamburg Ballet coproduced the full-length ballet with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi, the latter of which will premiere the work March 23 (NBoC will have its premiere in November). The production will feature Bolshoi star Svetlana Zakharova in the title role. This is especially fitting as Neumeier's initial inspiration for the ballet came from Zakharova while they were working together on his Lady of the Camellias. The following video delves into what makes this production stand out.

Keep reading... Show less
Beijing Dance Academy students Pei Yu Meng and Wang Yuzhiwan in rehearsal. Photo Courtesy BDA.

In one of 60 spacious dance studios at the Beijing Dance Academy, Pei Yu Meng practices a tricky step from Jorma Elo's Over Glow. She's standing among other students, but they all work alone, with the help of teachers calling out corrections from the front of the room. On top of her strong classical foundation and clean balletic lines, Pei Yu's slithery coordination and laser-sharp focus give her dancing a polished gleam. Once she's mastered the pirouette she's been struggling with, she repeats the step over and over until the clock reaches 12 pm for lunch. Here, every moment is a chance to approach perfection.

Pei Yu came to the school at age 10 from Hebei, a province near Beijing. Now 20, and in her third year of BDA's professional program, she is an example of a new kind of Chinese ballet student. Founded in 1954 by the country's communist government, BDA is a fully state-funded professional training school with close to 3,000 students and 275 full-time teachers over four departments (ballet, classical Chinese dance, social dance and musical theater). It offers degrees in performance, choreography and more. BDA's ballet program has long been known for fostering pristine Russian-style talent. But since 2011, the school has made major efforts to broaden ballet students' knowledge of Chinese dance traditions and the works of Western contemporary ballet choreographers. Pointe went inside this prestigious academy to see how BDA trains its dancers.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Tim Verhallen, via Instagram

Dutch National Ballet Soloist Michaela DePrince has been busy winning over the mainstream media. Since last spring, the First Position star not only landed a spokesmodel deal with Jockey, but she also recently teamed up on a commercial with Chase Bank and just announced that Madonna will be directing her upcoming biopic, Taking Flight (totally casual).

What could possibly be next? The cover of April's Harper's Bazaar Netherlands, it turns out. Posing in an arabesque with her hair slicked back in her usual ballet bun, DePrince traded in her leotard and tights for a stunning metallic Gucci dress (can we do that, too?).

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Leanne Benjamin and Luke Heydon in "Coppélia," via YouTube.

Dancing with The Royal Ballet from 1992 until 2013, former principal Leanne Benjamin tackled just about every role in the classical gamut, from Juliet to Nikiya to Giselle. As the young and spirited Swanilda in this clip from Coppélia, Benjamin reveals that she has equal talent for the silly as the serious. Her comedic performance in Swanilda's doll dance is this role at its best.

In an effort to trick the scheming Dr. Coppelius and save her beloved Franz, Swanilda pretends she is the doll Coppélia come to life. As she begins to dance, Benjamin is stiff and mechanical one moment and then flopped over like a rag doll the next. Dr. Coppelius, played by character artist Luke Heydon, watches her enthralled and Benjamin's gaze is fixed in a plastic stare. But when the toymaker looks away, Benjamin's Swanilda breaks doll character and frantically tries to figure out an escape. Feebly, Dr. Coppelius tries to keep up with her. Although we feel some sympathy for the delusional old toymaker, we can't help laughing at Swanilda's antics. And that slap at 1:55? Gets us every time. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

New York City Ballet's shoe room. Photo by Tess Mayer.

Deep in the basement of Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater is a small, windowless space that's home to nearly 6,000 pairs of pointe shoes, neatly stacked on shelves that reach to the ceiling. It's New York City Ballet's shoe room, and for company members, it's one of the most important places in the world. Dancers frequently stop by to search for the ideal pair for a special performance, or to tweak their custom pointe shoe orders, trying to get that elusive perfect fit. "If the shoe isn't right, the dancer can't do her job," says shoe room supervisor and former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Linnette Roe. We talked to Roe and NYCB soloist Emilie Gerrity about some of the most interesting—and surprising—secrets of the shoe room.

The NYCB dancers go through 9,000 to 11,000 pairs of shoes each year, including flat shoes, sneakers, jazz shoes, and character shoes. The company has an annual shoe budget of about $780,000.

Keep reading at

Younji-Grace Choi at the 2014 USA IBC. Choi is now a dancer with Cincinnati Ballet and will return to the USA IBC as a senior competitor this summer. Photo by Richard Finkelstein, Courtesy USA IBC.

Exciting news today: the USA International Ballet Competition has just announced its list of invited competitors for the summer 2018 competition. The USA IBC has invited 119 dancers from 19 countries out of over 300 applicants to compete in Jackson, MS June 10-23.

Since the last USA IBC in 2014 the competition has expanded its age limits; the junior category now allows dancers ages 14-18 and the senior category dancers ages 19-28. Of the 119 competitors this year, 53 are juniors and 66 are seniors. The United States has the highest number of competitors invited (52), followed by Japan (23) and South Korea (14). The other countries represented are Armenia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Columbia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, Philippines, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Keep reading... Show less
Les Grabds Ballets dancer Mai Kono in a promotional phtoo for next season's production of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Photo by Sasha Onyschenko, Courtesy Les Grands Ballets.

The latest front in the controversy over the underrepresentation of female choreographers in ballet is at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. They're facing a petition and choreographer resignation that forced them to rebrand a season and publicly defend their programming.

On February 26, artistic director Ivan Cavallari, who started the job in the summer of 2017, announced the 2018-2019 season, which included a program titled Femmes. The program announcement said the evening would have "woman as its theme," and that Cavallari had "chosen three distinctive voices, rising stars of choreography, to undertake this great subject."

The three voices Cavallari chose to create on the theme of women, however, were all men.

"This was just too much for me, it was the last straw," says Kathleen Rea, a former member of National Ballet of Canada who now freelances, choreographs and teaches in Toronto. Rea says she's been bothered by the dearth of women choreographers throughout her career. But referring to women as "subjects" and excluding them from choreographing on a program about them compelled her to take action.

Keep reading... Show less





Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox


Win It!