Misty Copeland discusses her new book, ballet culture and social activism
‘It was important for me to get out there and let people know what I believe in’
Misty Copeland, the first African-American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, sat down with reporters and fans at the National Press Club on Monday to talk about her first health and fitness book, Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You.
The 34-year-old has had an active couple of months, traveling to Cuba to spread classical dance and also speaking out against Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, who made remarks that were supportive of President Donald Trump. When Under Armour began its sponsorship of Copeland in 2014, she became the first classical dancer with a sports brand endorsement.
Since starting her ballet career at age 13, Copeland has become an author and public speaker and was recognized as one of Time Magazine‘s 100 Most Influential People in 2015.
Copeland answered questions about her book, which was released March 21, how she came back from a near career-ending injury, her activism and more before heading to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
What’s your relationship like with Kevin Plank since you’ve spoken out? Was there any frostiness after that? Is he still behind you 100 percent?
I’d say we’re probably closer now. … He and I have always had a very close relationship, and so I think everyone was a little taken aback by his comments that were taken out of context. … I know that it’s been very important for me. In the beginning this is so exciting. This is the first time a classical dancer has been given an endorsement with a sports brand. It’s a really big deal, and it’s brought so much attention and recognition and education to the American people, in terms of showing them that dancers are athletes and all that it takes to get there. At this point, I feel it’s not just me that represents Under Armour — Under Armour represents me. Steph Curry and Dwayne Johnson, they both agreed with me in that we have a responsibility as African-Americans to represent ourselves in a true and real way. … It was important for me to get out there and let people know what I believe in.
The Trump administration is proposing massive cuts and the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. How is this going to affect the push to see more dancers and artists of color?
Of course, I’m not happy [about the proposed cuts.] I think that right now is an even more important time for arts to have a voice and to stand up for what’s right for this country. I often speak about the opportunity I had when I traveled to Rwanda, and I worked with a program called Mind at Ease, and to be able to see the benefits of what dance can do for a child. … I’d love to start my own foundation [not right now] and be a place for people to turn to.
How did the Boys and Girls Club change your life?
Being able to go to a community center that had positive role models there and a real structure as a young child who didn’t have a lot of structure in my household, I think that it really saved me and it really set me up for the path that I’m on. I also would have never been introduced to classical ballet had I not been a member of the Boys and Girls Club. That’s where I took my first ballet class, on a basketball court there. They’ve been such a big part of forming who I am today. … I think it’s so important to have community centers like that, especially in underprivileged communities.
Are you going to advocate for better grocery store selection in tough neighborhoods so people can have a balanced diet?
It was extremely difficult for me as a child [to consistently find healthy food options]. I think it’s something that would’ve helped me early on, is just the knowledge of what’s not good for me and that there are ways to make the right choices even if you don’t have fresh vegetables around you. My mother didn’t cook, so I grew up for weeks at a time eating a cup of noodles every night for dinner. … I think having that strong base as a child [of knowing how to eat well] is going to make it so much easier as an adult when you have the ability to make those decisions for yourself and get the things you need.
Are you an advocate of having proper meals in schools?
Absolutely. I definitely stand behind it. I think starting as young as possible and understanding how much nutrition plays a role in health for the rest of your life. I think a lot of Americans think if I’m physically fit or active I’m healthy, but what you’re putting into your body is more than half of it.
[What do you hope will be the] takeaway from Ballerina Body?
I hope that they feel an opportunity to start fresh no matter what age they are. That they see something that’s really attainable and it’s about looking at your life and your lifestyle different than just, ‘I’m just going to try this and it’s a fad and see if it works,’ but maybe that it just makes them look at how they approach their lives in a different way.
What advice would you give readers of how to get through a near-break-point experience?
I had surgery five years ago now. I had six stress fractures, and I was told by more than a handful of doctors that I’d never dance again. I found the one doctor who said I will, and he’s the one who performed my surgery. During that process of healing, I didn’t allow myself to step back and look at what could be. I took every single day one day at a time and being really present in the moment of each day. Like, what can I do today? I can’t walk, so I’m going to lay on the floor and work on my arms. I’m going to do something that’s going to further me and make me better when I get back to the stage. Working in small increments allowed me to not get overwhelmed. Of course there were days that I crumpled and said I can’t do this, but having that support of ‘Yes, you can’ and ‘You’re going to start again tomorrow,’ I think just looking at things that way and enjoying the process.
Since you’ve come on, have you noticed a change in attitude in classical ballet? Has it been more accommodating to women of different sizes and shapes?
I’m going to say no. I think it’s become a conversation and acknowledgement from the ballet world that I’ve never seen before. I think to even just put it out there, my experiences that African-American dancers, in particular, have been told they don’t have the right bodies for generations and generations. For me, I think that’s the way of saying you don’t have the right skin color. I think just addressing these issues is making these professional companies wake up and realize the world is looking at them, and it’s not acceptable to not accept more diversity in your companies.
How have you innovated ballet?
I don’t know if I have a signature movement. I think something that makes me unique is the way I hear music, and I think that has a lot to do with the music I grew up with and around and the fact that I didn’t start dancing until super late. It allows me a bit more freedom in how I interpret what I hear. … I was listening to Anita Baker and Aretha Franklin and creating in my own mind what I thought dance was.
How’d you meet Prince, and what do you think his impact is?
I met Prince a long time ago. He reached out to me and asked me to be in a music video of his. I was still a new soloist with the company, so I was like, ‘How does he even know who I am, and why does he want me in his music video?’ When I met him, I agreed to work with him because I knew I’d have an opportunity to reach more people and a completely different audience than maybe are coming to see the ballet. I ended up working with him over the course of five years, just touring the world with him, and I feel like in that time and being on stage with him and seeing him live right in front of me really made me the artist that I am today. He forced me to step outside of my comfort zone. I think his impact on the world will live on forever. I’m just so grateful for the time that I had with him and for him being so unique and pushing the boundaries and not fitting into the stereotypical mold — especially as a black man.
What’s on your playlist?
I’ve been listening to Solange and Frank Ocean … some old Mariah Carey. I love Anita Baker and Aretha Franklin. I’m very open in terms of music, but at this point I like things that make me think.