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Classical 101

Talking Music And Mentoring With Ballerina Misty Copeland

Ballerina Misty Copeland dancing on stage in Swan Lake
Misty Copeland dances the role of Odette/Odile in American Ballet Theatre's production of 'Swan Lake.'

If all the world's a stage, Misty Copeland is a frequently featured performer. And as a classical dancer, Copeland is certainly comfortable in the spotlight.

In 2015, Copeland became the first African-American woman to take on the coveted role of principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre's 75-year history, catapulting Copeland beyond theater stages and the ballet world, into the realm of popular culture.

She's appeared on Broadway, a Prince music video60 Minutesand MSNBC, the covers of TIME (as one of the 100 most influential people in the world) and Essence magazines, Under Armor campaigns — and even as an animated version of herself on the PBS Kids show PEG + CAT. She's authored two books and was the subject of a documentary.

And just this week, Copeland took the stage of the Grand Ballroom in the Ohio Union on The Ohio State University's campus.

She sat down with Melanye White Dixon, associate professor in Ohio State's Department of Dance, as part of the Ohio Union Activities Board's series of events. Copeland shared her success story, from her first ballet class on a Boys & Girls Club basketball court in Los Angeles as a late-to-the-game 13-year-old, and more with students, faculty and staff, and countless young aspiring dancers — after teaching a class for Ohio State dance students.

We caught up with Copeland before the event for a conversation about music, mentorship, her advocacy for diversity and inclusion in ballet and more.

Do you have a favorite style of music in general?

You know, it's so interesting because I did not grow up around classical music whatsoever.

Credit mistycopeland.com

I read your first book ("Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina"), so I have a bit of the backstory.

Yeah, so you know that. Whenever I'm on photoshoots or things like that, I like to put on hip-hop and R&B and soul. So that's what I grew up listening to. But of course I love dancing to classical music.

Sure. But something you got more into along the way as you trained?

Right, yeah, of course. Like I learned, but I was always attracted to it when I was shown it. You know, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I don't want to dance to this.’ So I’m a big fan of music in general.

Do you have any favorite musicians or composers?

Well, (Igor) Stravinsky is probably one of the more difficult to dance to. It's something that you have to listen to; It’s so complicated. Like Firebird, for instance — it took me, like, a year of listening to the music to really understand what was happening and to be able to get out there and not count.

(Pyotr Ilyich) Tchaikovsky, of course, because that’s such a big bulk of what we do as classical dancers, and especially at [American Ballet Theatre] — a lot of Tchaikovsky.

How would you describe your dance style?

Well, I'm a classical dancer, without a doubt. When people ask me, I say I'm a ballerina. I don't think that there's any, like, blurring of the lines in terms of the type of what dancer I am.

But yeah, I would just say that I'm a mentor; I’m a writer. I’m a promoter of diversity in classical dance. So I think, in terms of wearing different hats, I would say those things. But I'm first and foremost a ballerina.

Absolutely. And do you have a favorite performance that you've done?

Misty Copeland dancing as The Firebird
Credit Rosalie O'Connor / American Ballet Theatre
American Ballet Theatre
Misty Copeland starred in American Ballet Theatre's production of 'The Firebird.'

Oh, that’s so hard. It wasn't my favorite performance in terms of what I delivered. But my first performance of The Firebird in New York City at the Metropolitan Opera House, I think was one of the most memorable in terms of what it represented — being, you know, a black woman and me doing my first principal classical role in a full-length ballet and the first time I saw such diversity in the audience. So I feel like that performance will forever be kind of a stepping stone to where I am now.

Performance wise, I don't know if there was any one in particular. But Romeo and Juliet, it's something that I feel like every time I step onto the stage with that role, I grow so much just from — I love acting, like, not with words. But I love acting.

Yeah, it’s so expressive.

It’s one of my favorite things. So I performed the ballet at La Scala in Italy, in Milan, and there was one performance in particular that was a very emotional experience. It was, I think, a couple of months after Prince had passed away.

And there’s a moment in the third act where Juliet’s just sitting on her bed, and it's a long period of time that goes by and she's not moving at all. You know, you have to express that she's kind of going through everything that had happened up until that point. And I feel like that was the first time it really hit me that he had passed. And so it was just such a powerful and real and raw moment that that's probably one of my favorite performances I've given.

That's so interesting. So it kind of hit you onstage, in the moment?


Wow. It’s funny how it sneaks up on you like that.

Yeah, and I mean I think something that's so special about what we do as dancers and as artists is that I feel very comfortable with being extremely vulnerable and in the moment when I'm on stage, and so I think that's why that memory came to — because I'm going through what happened when I first met Paris and I'm this little girl, and then I meet Romeo and then my cousin dies. And, you know, just going through all these things in your head, and I feel like because it was so real and raw that, that just came up.


Yeah, that's powerful. So I wonder, if you could dance with anyone from the past or present or maybe even future, does anyone come to mind?

I never got to dance with Desmond Richardson, which, I mean, he's still dancing. But that's one that I’ve wanted to. I mean, also him being the first African-American male principal dancer with ABT and a stunning dancer.

Who wouldn't want to have danced with (Mikhail) Baryshnikov? [Laughs]

In the future, I don't know. I mean, there's so many young dancers at ABT that are so incredible, and it's fun to kind of pick them out and just say, like, "Oh I hope I'm still in the company when they become a principal dancer so I get the opportunity," you know. It's fun to watch like the young male dancers in ABT because I think they're the best in the world.  

Are you seeing more diversity coming through now?

Yeah, I'd say more in ABT in particular. This is the most I've experienced in my 18 years with the company, which is crazy. This is the first time that I've not been alone as a black woman in the company of 80 dancers. Now there's two other black women in the company with me, so that's progress, I guess.

Sure, baby steps.

Yeah, but I think that it's something that I'm not going to see in my career. I think that right now — and it has to happen this way in ballet, but — we're reaching the kids who are just now coming into the ballet world and getting the training they need at a young age. So it's going to take awhile until that crop of kids is being given an opportunity to audition for major companies.

That makes sense, absolutely. So in kind of talking about that, I wanted to ask you about your mentorship and your role as a role model for so many people. I mean, that's been a really important part of your career.


You've become an inspiration for people who come from complicated backgrounds, people of color, anyone who wants to kind of change the status quo. And I wonder, if you could talk to all of those people at once, in one room, what do you think you would say to them?

Misty Copeland spoke Monday at Ohio State, as part of the Ohio Union Activities Board's series of events.

You know, I feel like no one becomes great alone, or successful or strong. And so I just feel like I will never forget all of the amazing people, whether they knew that they impacted me in some way or not, that I will never stop kind of embracing that we all did this together. And I think that's so important to acknowledge, that I didn't do this on my own.

And even when people give me praise or they say, you're the first, and it's like, yes, I am in this situation — but I'm not the first. There have been so many amazing dancers, minority dancers, but black dancers that, you know, a lot of people don't know their names, and weren't given the opportunities that I had. But I’m just forever grateful for this path that has been carved out for me.

You've accomplished so much and also kind of have an emphasis on continuing to learn. So do you have any goals or any thoughts about what's next?

I mean, yes, there are so many amazing things that I've been so fortunate to get to do outside of just being a ballerina. But right now, I just want to stay so in the moment and focused on my dancing and my career at ABT, because that's not something that's going to last forever.

So you know, every day it's a learning experience. And like you said, as a dancer I think we all know that we will never stop learning and we will never reach that point where we’re like, OK we've made it; I'm perfect. That will never happen. So it's like a gift and a curse.

But outside of ABT and my dancing career, I think I will forever be a part of ballet in some way, and giving back to my community and pushing for diversity in classical dance. So I know that I will forever have my hands in ballet.

Emily joined WOSU Public Media in 2016. As the digital producer for arts and culture, she works at the intersection of WOSU TV and Radio, leading digital initiatives for Columbus Neighborhoods, Broad & High and Classical 101.