Labeled a “prodigy” when she was only a teenager, Misty Copeland has never felt comfortable with the word. “I’ve never connected to the word, and as a young person I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t doing ballet because I was a prodigy. I did it because I loved it, and I couldn’t live without having it in my life.”
In conversation with Head of School Felicia Wilks, Copeland discussed her career, her experience as a young dancer, and her most recent book, The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson, to an audience of Upper School students and faculty.
Copeland didn’t discover Wilkinson until she was already in the midst of her career as a professional ballerina. After learning about the groundbreaking work Wilkinson had accomplished as one of the first African-American ballerinas to dance for a major classical ballet company, she soon learned that Wilkinson lived in her neighborhood. A long lasting mentorship ensued.
When asked by a student what she thought made someone a strong mentor, Copeland said, “Being available. It seems simple, but being present and available whenever you’re there, putting yourself on the same level of the person you’re mentoring, and knowing that you can learn from each other. Strong mentorship is a two-way street.”
In 2022, Copeland founded The Misty Copeland Foundation, which provides dance classes for children in under-resourced communities in the Bronx and Harlem. “I didn’t want it to be a typical ballet class. When a lot of people hear the word ballet, they might think hard or boring, and I want to get rid of these stereotypes.” Copeland’s goal is to educate students on what she feels is the essence of ballet: “It’s creative. It’s fun. It’s joyful rigor. It still can be hard, but I think discipline is a good thing when it’s framed in a way that’s exciting and allows you to have a voice.”
Copeland shared with students that she is currently working to broaden the representation of the ballerina slipper emoji skin tone. “Throughout my career it’s been important to share my experiences. I haven’t always felt represented or welcome to this art form.” The color of ballet garments like hosiery and shoes, Copeland said, are often made to match light skin tones. “It’s a small thing, but it’s a huge way of excluding people.”
One student asked Copeland what advice she wished she could go back in time and give herself at the beginning of her dancing career. Above all, she wished she could tell herself to be patient. “Things are going to happen the way they are supposed to, and you don’t have to walk in anyone else’s path. That’s been the case for me with everything—I started dancing at 13, was promoted to principal dancer at 32, and was the only black woman in the ABT company—keep pushing, because you’re walking your own path.”