Behind her dance

Copeland made history on June 30, 2015, when she became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at ABT. [Photo: Gilda N. Squire Gildasquire – CC BY-SA 4.0]

BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief

Dance like no one is watching, they say. On stage, everyone watches. The journey she takes, however, to take center stage is oftentimes invisible once her performance begins. No one really thinks about the pain behind her dance–not when the goal is a standing ovation.

Meet Misty Danielle Copeland, a ballet dancer for the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). ABT is one of only three leading classical ballet companies in the country. Copeland made history on June 30, 2015, when she became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at ABT.

Born on September 10, 1982, when she was seven years old, she saw the movie “Nadia” about Olympian Nadia Comaneci. After seeing it, Comaneci became her role model. Using her imagination, Copeland choreographed flips and dance moves to Mariah Carey songs. Visuals matter.

While a student at Dana Middle School, Copeland joined the drill team. Her natural abilities caught the attention of her coach, a woman who was classically trained. As a result, her coach encouraged her to take free ballet classes that were being taught by her friend at a Boys & Girls Club. Impressed, her new teacher began teaching her at her small ballet school.

Being considerate of her family’s poor financial condition, Copeland declined the opportunity to take ballet classes. Her teacher saw so much potential in her, however, that she provided transportation for her to attend. After three months, Copeland could dance on her toes. She was a prodigy.

Isn’t that something? Copeland was a child prodigy who, due to conditions outside of her control, could have easily been overlooked.

Like so many others, major odds were stacked against her. She was a child of a single parent, not meeting her father until she was 22 years old. Her family’s socioeconomic condition was poor. Her mom had several relationships and worked long hours. Yet, she took advantage of opportunities that helped to develop her true talent.

Do you take advantage of opportunities that develop your true talent?

Copeland did not start ballet until she was 13 years old. Some would say that that is late. Two years later, in the midst of a custody battle between her mother and her ballet teachers/custodial guardians, Copeland had become an award-winning dancer and was fielding professional offers. The legal proceedings ended up being dropped.

Her coaches introduced her to books and videos about ballet. Again, visuals matter. During this time, she saw a principal ballerina who was with ABT perform at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Copeland discovered an additional role model.

Copeland’s dance and professional career continues to progress. She has won numerous awards and honors. She has also authored books, appeared on television programs, endorsed products and is a public speaker.

Not to be lost in her accomplishments, however, is the acknowledgment of her strength and perseverance. She overcame while dancing at an elite level.

Her home life was only one part. Copeland dealt with being self-conscious about her body image, struggling with a binge eating disorder, being the only black woman in a prestigious dancing company, and at times dealing with cultural isolation. At one point, Copeland thought about pursuing another career path.

Just like in her childhood years, there was someone who identified her potential and worked in support of its fruition. ABT’s artistic director connected Copeland with a mentor who introduced her to black women, specifically ones who were trailblazers and who were supportive and provided her with the strength to go forth and perform at her highest level in spite of her situation. Again, visuals matter.

Keisha Bell

Keisha Bell

Maybe that is the takeaway: Behind her dance, before the applause, is an audience of opportunity if she can persevere.

Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant.

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