ABT's Misty Copeland on living in a convent, Café Luxembourg, and Taye Diggs
By Angela Barbuti
Misty Copeland took her first ballet class in gym shorts, a t-shirt, and socks because she could not afford a leotard and tights. The 31-year-old American Ballet Theater soloist has come a long way from her 13-year-old self, and she's chronicled her journey in her new book Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. As the only African American soloist in the prestigious company, Copeland exemplifies true perseverance in the face of adversity. The Upper West Side resident credits New York City, where she moved as teenager to pursue her childhood dream of dancing with ABT, with making her feel as though she belonged. "In the ballet world, you're forced to look a certain way. And in New York, I felt I could be me and it was great," she said.
At 16, you moved here from California. What did you think of the city at first?
I was terrified and hated it. It was the summer, so it was super hot and muggy. I was used to California which is not so humid. It was overwhelming- all the people, seeing trash outside on the streets. But by the end of the summer, I had fallen in love with it and can't imagine living anywhere else now.
You've been living on the Upper West Side for 13 years. It's referred to as "the dance belt," right?
Yes, that's what we all call it. New York City Ballet, ABT dancers, and a lot of people come up here because there's Steps dance studio, where we take classes. And of course, Lincoln Center is here so it's just easy to be near the theater. There are so many dancers on the Upper West Side. You run into them on every block.
What are your favorite places in your neighborhood?
There are so many restaurants that I love. There's Café Luxemburg which is on my block. I love Chowder House. I just love being on Columbus Avenue. Intermix is my favorite store, and Helmut Lang. I love to shop and love to eat.
Describe your first ballet class at the Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro.
I started at 13 and was in my gym clothes for those first couple of classes. I had no idea what ballet really was, and I didn't have the means to have a leotard and tights. I thought it was important to share those really intimate parts of my upbringing because I know that so many young people experience lives like that. They feel like they have no chance to be a part of something like classical ballet.
Since you were young, you knew you wanted to dance with ABT.
I always knew that was the company I wanted to dance for. I just felt that they represent what America stands for more than any other ballet company. I felt that who I am as a person and as a dancer fit in very well with the company. They have a very diverse repertoire. I enjoy doing more than just classical ballet and I get to do that at ABT. I always saw that vision for myself.
Race is a theme in the book; you think that the New York City Ballet didn't offer you a spot because of the color of your skin.
It's hard to really say whether or not things happen because of my race. At the time, that's really how we felt. I was young and had the perfect ballet body. I was gifted and New York City Ballet didn't take me into their summer intensive. I can't even fathom how that happened when I was getting full scholarships to every elite ballet summer intensive. My teacher said to me, "I really think that it was because of the color of your skin." But, obviously, that wasn't said to me by them, so it's hard to really know if that was the truth or not. Race is a huge part of my experience as a ballerina and I hear it from other dancers of color as well who really dealt with it firsthand. They had it said to their face, "You don't belong in ballet. You won't make it. You might as well do another form of dance."
ABT accepted you into their summer intensive, and you lived in a convent with other ballerinas.
Yeah, a lot of dancers experience that. It's a safe place to be and it's cheap. When you go away to most summer intensives, they have dorms, but being in Manhattan, it's not practical. So you have to find your own housing. The convent that I stayed at was on 14th Street and 7th Ave. It was a scary area then. I remember a shooting happening one night while we were sleeping and seeing blood outside the front door.
I've been to ABT's rehearsal space on Broadway. Describe it to our readers.
It's literally like my second home. We're in the studios from 10:15 a.m. to 7 p.m., five days a week. So I know every little part of that studio like the back of my hand. We have five studios on the two floors that we have. It's in a building that we share with Broadway people, so we see a lot of interesting people coming in and out of the building. It's actually very different from a lot of professional ballet companies' studios. It's really old. It's very much like classic New York. The heaters make so much noise in the winter and when we have people come in who have never been in the studios, they get so frustrated with the noise of the radiators because they can barely hear the piano playing. As dancers, we're not at all used to luxury. We're in there; we're working; we're sweating. The luxuriousness comes out on stage.
Your mother believed in your talent, even though she was struggling in her own life.
My mother was extremely supportive and loving. She was a great mother. It was just extremely difficult coming from where she came from, and having to raise all of us kids, pretty much without a father. I think she did an amazing job.
There were many mentors who guided you along the way. One in particular, your dance teacher, Cindy, took you in as a foster daughter. Do you still see her?
Yeah, I still see her. Everyone tries to get to New York during my spring season. She'll be coming out with a lot of other family members. I see her when I'm home in California as well. I think it's important to keep those people in my life.
You mentioned that you're starting a dancewear line.
I'm still in the process of making that happen. I started working on it four years ago. It's going to be a dancewear line for curvy women, so it's really about support in the bust area, stuff that doesn't really exist for ballet dancers.
I like the part of the book where you meet your boyfriend through Taye Diggs at Lotus.
[Laughs] Yes, he was his cousin. I tried as best as I could to be a normal girl living in New York City. I wanted to really live life and not regret being a young woman stuck in a ballet studio. I definitely found comfort in being out and about in the city. I frequented Lotus nightclub a lot and that's how I met my boyfriend. I met him on his last night in New York City before he returned to Atlanta where he was in law school. We ended up in a long-distance relationship for a year before he moved to New York where he's an attorney.
You still take ballet classes seven days a week and say you will never perfect the technique. Explain that.
As a professional dancer, being in class is our way of fine-tuning our bodies. It's not something you can just learn and forget about. Class is something that we do every morning to warm our bodies up for rehearsal and to keep our technique crisp and clean, the same way you would fine-tune an instrument. For me, personally, I feel that my body is in the best shape it can be in if I take class every day.