Misty Copeland will never forget her first ballet class.
She was 13 years old when it happened. At that age, she was used to sitting in the bleachers overlooking a basketball court at her Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, California, watching her brothers play. But on this particular day, she was invited to watch a ballet class on the court instead.
“The teacher called me to come down from the bleachers to join the class with the rest of the girls,” she recalled in a phone interview with The Huffington Post on Tuesday night. “I was so shy ― I never wanted to do it. I was in my socks and my shorts and my T-shirt. And it was terrifying and exciting all at the same time. And that was that. I never looked back.”
I wouldn’t be Misty Copeland, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, if it wasn’t for them.
Today, Copeland is a boundary-breaking ballerina: the first female African-American principal at the American Ballet Theater. She’s quick to credit her entire career to that Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro. “I wouldn’t be Misty Copeland, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, if it wasn’t for them,” she explained to a video crew at the National Youth of the Year (NYOY) gala this week.
Copeland was at the gala honoring six women chosen as finalists for the NYOY award. They included Alexia Lewis, Melanie Webster, Raliyah Dawson, Arianna Skinner, Abria Franklin, and eventual winner Jocelyn Woods. Ahead of the ceremony, she answered a few of our questions on video and then hopped on the phone with HuffPost that night to talk about the importance of free youth programs, being a role model to President Obama’s daughters, and why the ballet world isn’t changing quickly enough.
On being a role model to President Obama’s daughters:
“Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. At the same time, he’s just so relatable and so human. He has two young girls and they’re African-American, so he absolutely understands what it is to be a black woman in America, just through his experiences with his wife and his daughters. It’s incredible for him to recognize me in that way. And it was amazing to be able to speak to him about these issues that are so important ― body image, especially, again, with black women. It’s amazing to even be acknowledged by him.”
On the importance of visibility:
“I think that’s kind of the first step into why I think the way I do ― understanding the importance of being able to see yourself and identify with people who have a voice and a platform. Especially with celebrities. It’s just important for a young child to be able to see themselves in every space and be represented.”
I think that it’s important for this generation to really accept all of themselves and what makes them unique and different.
On the obstacles facing young women today:
“It’s really difficult to exist in this time and not be persuaded and influenced by the imagery we see on social media. And I think that’s such a big part of what’s kind of seeping into our youth’s lives and affecting them. I think it’s important to be surrounded by people who are supporting you, to be unique, to own who you are, have a voice and not have to be like the person next to you.
“I think that it’s important for this generation to really accept all of themselves and what makes them unique and different. That’s something that I feel like is not celebrated when you turn on your phone and go to Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. We’re kind of being fed these images of these kinds of altered people and we’re supposed to think that that’s what beauty is. So I think what’s most important is that we accept who we are. That’s what makes us so beautiful as individuals.”
On using social media:
“Something that I’m definitely always thinking about [is] setting a positive example, especially through an art form I’m a part of that is so visual. I want to portray who I am and, of course, the hard work that goes into what it takes to be ballet dancer and to have a ballerina’s body. But it’s about taking care of yourself and respecting your body and feeding it and fueling it and keeping it healthy.”
On the advice she’d give to young boys and girls attempting to overcome shyness:
“I think it’s so important to have mentors and have people in your life that are going to support you and are going to be there for you when you feel like, you know, you’re not capable or you’re not in the right place or mind space to be able to get where you want to go. To me, mentors have been such an important part of my success. I think you have to be vulnerable and open to asking for advice and accepting guidance.”
To me, mentors have been such an important part of my success. I think you have to be vulnerable and open to asking for advice and accepting guidance.
On whether or not the ballet world is changing quickly enough:
“No. No. It’s just kind of how the ballet world has been since the time it came about. It’s something that is really slow to progress, being a European art form and just not ever really being accepting of anything that’s different or anyone outside of having pale skin. So I think it’s slow to progress, but at the same time, having the platform that I have to reach a broader audience ― it’s definitely waking up the ballet world. It’s forcing them to have to address the lack of diversity, and not just with skin color and ethnicity, but body types as well. I feel like the spotlight is being put on them and they’re having to address it. So, in that way, things are slowly changing.”
On the importance of the Boys & Girls Clubs:
“It’s inspiring. I mean, I feel like it’s this cycle of ― I was once in their position of being a young person wanting to succeed and wanting to have opportunities presented to me. So to be able to look back and be inspired by them and what they’re doing and the obstacles they come from; me being in that position at one point. It’s so empowering. Especially this year, to see six women that are really supporting each other and given an opportunity to stand on the stage and speak their truth and share their stories with us. I know all of them are going to successful in their lives.”
On the most influential aspect of the Clubs:
“I mean, it’s just amazing to have a second home, which I know this is to all of these girls who are here tonight. And it really was a second home for me, when my mother was working several jobs. So besides just having a place to go, a place to be tutored, a place to really make connections and learn how to communicate and social skills and all of those things, I found ballet at my club. Which is so unique for that time. Now so many clubs have incorporated dance and have official dance studios. It’s just so amazing because I wouldn’t be here without having the support of my club and being introduced into an art form in this way.”
That’s been a big part of my existence since I’ve become a professional dancer is just trying to create opportunities for people like me
On the importance of free Club services for kids:
“That’s been a big part of my existence since I’ve become a professional dancer is just trying to create opportunities for people like me, in the way that I grew up, and give them opportunities like I had ― which was through an outreach program through the Boys & Girls Club with a local ballet school. So I helped to create a diversity initiative called Project Plié, and it’s in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club and American Ballet Theater. It’s amazing to be able to create something that is going to give kids opportunities in underprivileged communities ― give them the same opportunities kids who are exposed to these other programs have.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.