Jan 4, 2024 - Podcasts

Misty Copeland: Ballet as activism

Misty Copeland is the rare ballerina who's recognizable well beyond the world of ballet. In 2015, she became the first Black woman to reach the title of principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. Throughout her career, Misty has spoken out about being one of the few Black dancers on the professional stage, and why early and equal access to the arts is so important. Through her foundation, she’s now trying to connect more young people to ballet through after-school programs.

Niala Boodhoo spoke to Misty this week about forging new paths in an old art form, and why that matters for equity and inclusion beyond the stage.

Guest: Misty Copeland, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and founder of the The Misty Copeland Foundation. Author of several books, most recently "The Wind at My Back.”

WATCH: Misty Copeland at the 2015 Vail International Dance Festival.

Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, and Jay Cowit. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.


NIALA: Ballerina Misty Copeland has changed the face of ballet.

MISTY COPELAND: Just being a black dancer, in a black body, on a stage in a white art form, is a form of activism.

NIALA: To start this new year, how one dancer is forging new paths in an old art form, and why that matters for equity and inclusion beyond the stage.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. And from Axios, this is one big thing.

Misty Copeland is the rare ballerina who's recognizable well beyond the world of ballet. In 2015 she became the first Black woman to reach the title of principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. But well before that, she had gained attention not only for her artistry and technique, but also for her story: as a child who went from living in poverty in a motel in California and who had a late start to ballet--at age 13--to its highest ranks.

MISTY: Having come from a background and an upbringing where there wasn't a lot of stability or security, and there was something about being in the space of a studio or even on the stage that made me feel like I was in this safe bubble where I could just block everything out. No one could reach me. Could say anything to me, and I could just be, you know, completely immersed in the experience.

Throughout her career Misty has spoken about being one of the few Black dancers on the professional stage…and why early and equal access to the arts was so important. And she has been working to get more people into ballet, including through a foundation that aims to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in dance, especially ballet.

Today there are more Black professional ballet dancers than when Misty joined American Ballet Theatre, and the art form is making slow strides away from its uniform white past. I spoke to her this week about her leadership in and outside of ballet, and why art matters for everyone.

NIALA: Misty Copeland is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and she is also the founder of the Misty Copeland Foundation and author of several books, most recently "The Wind at my Back" – Welcome to Axios' 1 big thing, Misty.

MISTY: Thank you so much for having me.

NIALA: So, you went viral on TikTok recently with a video explaining how you paint your pointe shoes with foundation to match your skin tone…

MISTY, TIKTOK VIDEO: I just get a sponge and I go with the grain of the satin so that it really covers the entire shoe without any splotching. I have ruined so many pillows and couches and clothing…because of this foundation getting all over it, it's really tedious and time consuming, especially the ribbons and elastics…

NIALA: This is something many Black dancers have long done. Is this something you've had to do for your entire career?

MISTY: Yeah. I think it's so important to give people, um, context, you know, when it comes to ballet history, the fact that ballet was created for white European people. But ballet has since been brought to America and we live in a very diverse cultural atmosphere.

And because of all of that, I think it's important for us to really acknowledge these They seem small and insignificant, but these almost microaggressions, you think about, you know, the first thing you get when you go into a ballet studio, into a class as a young dancer at three years old, at seven years old is you get your, your pink, European pink ballet slippers and you get your European pink tights. And to me, if that is not the first introduction and way to say you don't belong in this space, because this is a representation of your, of your line, of your skin color, you know, we work in the studio to create this through line to make ourselves look elongated, and strong.

And as Black and Brown dancers, from day one, we don't feel that way. And it's become a practice amongst Black and Brown dancers for as long as, you know, I think we've, we've been around and doing ballet because we want to have that same aesthetic and that same beautiful, long, lean line. And I would say that most recognized for really, taking ownership of this practice would be, um, Mr.

Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who was the first black principal dancer at the New York City Ballet…really, you know, made black dancers feel seen. And that, like, we can be a part of this, career and this world, when he had his whole company in black and brown flesh toned tights and, and pointe shoes and ballet slippers, that really, I think, changed the culture in terms of Black people feeling like, oh, we can be a part of this.

NIALA: And we should say that in the last few years more pointe shoe manufacturers are making – or say they're planning to make – their shoes in a wider range of colors…

But there's also the idea that it's not just color, but it's also about body type, right? It was really interesting to me in preparing for this interview to learn that expecting ballet dancers to be hyper thin and not overly muscular wasn't such a common thing before the choreographer George Balanchine. And I wonder, did you know about the history of ballet bodies when you first started dancing?

MISTY: I did. You know, I, I had an incredible teacher Cynthia Bradley, um, who was very thoughtful and intentional about the, companies that she was showing me, I remember her telling me, about, you know, this, this saying that George Balanchine had, you know, that, in his eyes, the ballerina should be the complexion of a freshly peeled apple. And, you know, so these things were already kind of in my mind, but she celebrated me and who I was.

And, it was the first time I ever felt beautiful and accepted and seen in my life, So I always felt as a young person that ballet was for me and that I was meant to be doing this. You know, it wasn't until I was, kind of thrust out into the wider world and, and in, in, you know, the ballet world and had this kind of hard, cold truth that, you know, I was the only black woman in the company at American Ballet Theater when I joined, and that would go on for the first 10 years of my career, and, and really just started to find mentors and do research on my own and start to understand that, there have been so many black dancers before me and successful black dancers that just aren't part of our history, aren't, you know, acknowledged or documented in history books. and that have had a variety of body types.

I think George Balanchine definitely created a new standard in ballet and I think was very influenced by pop culture, by American culture, by what models looked like in that time, in the 60s and in the 70s. And, and it was a direct, you know, reflection of, of what he had created in the New York City ballet, but it kind of trickled down into the rest of the ballet world and started to become the norm. And then that was picked up in pop culture and became, you know, that this is what an ideal ballerina should look like. But I think we're at a place now where, people are so educated and well-read when it comes to how to take care of our bodies, you know, health wise, the cross training that we need to do, what we are putting into our bodies to fuel it, because we are athletes, our bodies are instruments. And so I think we have a different understanding and therefore it's reflected in the way our bodies look today as, as dancers.

You know, we, there aren't really companies that just do classical ballets anymore. They do a variety of works, modern, contemporary, and when you do that type of athletic work, your body is going to change and adapt to the exercises and the choreography that we're doing.

So I feel like we've come a long way. It's not about these things that just don't matter, you know, the length of your, between your ankle and your knee, or, you know, these crazy things, these like measurements, the size of your head, but that, it's, it's how you interpret this, incredible, ageless technique of ballet.

NIALA: So Misty you have branched out in many directions in your career – including through your production company which last year debuted a short film, Flower, which you also star in. The film spotlights the issue of housing in the Bay Area…why did you want to pick this for your first film project?

MISTY: Well, you know, first of all, I think that when I decided to start the production company with my best friend. Her name is Leila Fayyaz. She was a ballerina at American Ballet Theatre. She's Persian, Lebanese, Cuban, comes from a similar background to me where, you know, I think that we both came into the ballet community not completely feeling like, oh, this is a place that we see people like us, represented.

And so we bonded immediately. Leila then left the company and went on to go back to school and has worked in television as a writer producer for the last 18 years. And so we came together maybe six or seven years ago and created the production company. Really with this idea of kind of carrying on my mission of, of what I've been doing throughout my career.

How do we make ballet inclusive and accessible and not feel like it's only for upper-class white people? And what better way to bring access and visibility to the art form than through media, than through television, than through film.

So that was really why we wanted to start the production company. And when it comes to the film Flower, we've had so many, coals on the fire, and this just happened to be the first one that came to fruition. And I'm so happy that it was, because I think it's really a true representation of the type of artwork we would like to see more of.

To me it's a modern ballet on screen. It's taking the same formatting. There's no dialogue. It's movement storytelling. But using people that look like our communities, that we live in, urban communities. It's using a story that's relevant to what so many people in society are going through, today.

You know, housing crisis, gentrification, homelessness, houselessness. And so, to me, it's, it's, it's a ballet. But, you know, we have different, we have contemporary dance and, and hip hop and, Turf dancing, which is the local street dance there in Oakland, California. you know, it's art activism.

NIALA: I think a lot of people think of you as a leader, not just a dancer, but as you're also talking about this, like, art activism, I was going to ask you if you consider yourself an activist or is art activism the right term?

MISTY: You know, I, I've been told this by so many black dancers, especially black dancers that, um, you know, have been mentors to me, but, you know, I think just being a black dancer in a black body, on a stage, in a white art form, is a form of activism. So I would say yes, I am an activist.

NIALA: We'll be back in a minute with more from Misty Copeland…this is one big thing.

Welcome back to 1 big thing from Axios. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

I spoke this week to ballerina, author and philanthropist Misty Copeland, about diversifying ballet...and how her work extends beyond the world of professional dance.

I wonder what kind of effect you see your work having for Black women outside of the arts, like I'm thinking in the business world, for example.

MISTY: What I've always tried to do is show that what I've, I've taken from my career, are these incredible skills that I've, that I've developed, learned and garnered by being a part of the arts that have taught me, I think, to be a leader in my community. and, you know, that as a woman and as a Black woman, that, it's okay to be the first. It's okay to be the only. But that we have a responsibility then to, um, create a circle around us where we have mentors and people that we can lean on, that can help us to get further and to succeedI've had so many incredible, especially Black women, backing me and behind me that have supported all of the things that I've wanted to continue to do that are all connected to ballet in some way and bringing it to more people and kind of expanding on, what it means to be a part of, dance and, and specifically, you know, the importance of dance education.

And, and I think that it's about taking on opportunities that may be scary or outside of your comfort zone, or, just outside of this kind of tradition of what's expected of us. And, you know, when I was approached by Derek Jeter, gosh, this was like maybe two years ago now, with the idea of starting an athletic wear line.

I've gone back and forth and, and I actually started, a dance wear line a while back and then it kind of fell through and, you know, it's so hard to do things like that and start on your own from the beginning, raising your own money and finding the, the sources and the materials and all of that.

So to have, you know, this incredible, iconic athlete come to me and kind of say, we've got the infrastructure, do you want to do this? It was like, yes. So, you know, I've invested in the company, it's called Greatness Wins. The menswear, launched a year ago. I'm heading the women's line and that launched in the fall of 2023.

It's really cool. Not just to be the face of a brand but to really be doing the groundwork and and the create creative side of things is really exciting.

But again, it wouldn't be possible without, acknowledging that I'm not doing this on my own and that there, there is support out there.

NIALA: Does that make you feel an obligation to then extend that to the next generation coming up? I wonder how you think about keeping the spirit of mentorship alive.

MISTY: Yes, 100%. I mean, I've had those feelings since I experienced my first mentor where it was like, Oh, this is how it's supposed to be. And I feel the same way like having a child now and wanting to expand my family more, that like, this is what life's about.

We're learning so that we can pass on to the next generation so that they can be more than us, they can make the world a better place than we live in now. And so, I've always felt that way and you know, I think that was one of the main reasons around, you know, creating the Misty Copeland Foundation, and even just, you know, a lot of the work that I've done with different organizations, because it's so important for me to use my voice and my platform, in any way that I can.

NIALA: We are in such a contentious moment in America right now, and I'm thinking as we are starting the beginning of this presidential election year, there's a lot of division in the country, arts funding has been under fire. Do you worry about what that will look like in this upcoming presidential election or just this year?

MISTY: Of course, I mean, you know, I think we've already seen it be pretty bad and we're still standing. And I think that there are so many people out there that are committed to doing the work. There are individuals, and individual foundations that are willing to put the funding into arts education. Jodi Arnhold being one of them, like she's, you know, is just such an advocate for arts education within schools, and, and what I feel, is missing and where I've kind of gone into this lane is, is the after school space. And I think that we have a lot of flexibility there again to have, different institutions that understand that, that commitment and then individuals who are willing to put money into it, to keep things going when we know we're not going to get government funding and things like that.

NIALA: Right, and I wonder though, when you think about things like ballet being accessible to people from all backgrounds, how important is it for this to be not just done by the private sector? Like, do you think that public education should have a role in this?

MISTY: It absolutely should have a role, but it's like, you know, how much power do we have? And again, I know so many people that are like putting up the, you know, the, the good fight and putting in the work. And it's something that I'm going to continue to do for the rest of my life.

I think it's bigger than, maybe thinking of arts as this sub subject. That it's really the basis for, like, child development, you know? And that it's not this small extracurricular activity. when I was exposed to dance for the first time, like my grades went up in school.

Like, there was more compassion and more empathy. There are so many amazing attributes and skills that you develop by being exposed to the arts and to dance and utilizing your body and connecting it to your mind that will allow you to be better in so many other subjects this should be a part of our education system. It shouldn't be something that's kind of an add on.

NIALA: You know, we have people of all ages who are listening to this podcast. What is sort of your message to them about engaging in different forms of art, whether that's ballet or film or other art forms.

MISTY: I would just say try and be as open as you can be. Because you just never know what you're going to get, what you're going to see, what you're going to learn…something that's outside of your comfort zone and just seeing things in a different way by being exposed to something that's new to you.

And I feel like as, as an artist, like it's so important to just, have your eyes and your mind open so that you can be as honest and truthful as possible when you're delivering this art form to people and to have many different, perspectives. and I feel like that's just how I try and live my life. And I, I say it to young artists a lot that, you know, as dancers, we often, it takes so much time and dedication and, and training, and you're just kind of in this bubble and in the studio, but you have to live your life. Be a full person, if not just for your own personal, like, experience to be the best artist you can be. You know, to have all of these life experiences to, to pull from.

NIALA: Misty Copeland is a ballerina, an author, and philanthropist. Her latest book is The Wind at My Back. Thank you so much for being with us. I appreciate it.

MISTY: Thank you so much for having me.

NIALA: You can learn more about Misty's work – and see videos of her dancing – via our show notes.

And that's all for this week's edition of 1 Big Thing. Our team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Jay Cowit. Alex Suigura composed our theme music. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor, and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief.

As always, I love hearing from you. Thanks to those who already have sent me guest ideas for 2024 - you can do that by texting me at 202 918 4893 - or email podcasts @ axios.com.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we'll see you back here next Thursday.

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