It’s hard to imagine Misty Copeland, the wallflower. At 34, she is a world-renowned ballet dancer, speaker and writer. At the American Ballet Theater, she is a pioneer. Last summer, she became the first African-American woman in company history to be elevated to principal dancer.
But as she tells it, she wasn’t always so outspoken, so bold, so willing to stand in the spotlight. ELLE.com’s Marley Dias sat down with Copeland in New Orleans this summer to talk about athletics, ambition and overcoming the occasional miseries of college.
Do you consider yourself more of an athlete or more of an artist? Are there times when you feel more like one than the other?
I think dancers are superhuman superheroes. We cannot be split in two. We don’t say, “Today I feel like an artist and today I feel like an athlete”. I think that’s what makes it so beautiful and so difficult – we always have to be all of those things. So I feel like a beautiful athlete princess every day.
You went to college and you lived this normal life until this dancer thing! What was your favorite part of college and what were your favorite books?
Oh my God, I don’t even remember! I feel like middle school was so long ago. As a ballerina, I would say my new favorite role is Romeo and Juliet, and it definitely brings me back to the time of reading Romeo and Julietsee the original Romeo and Juliet film. It all came back to me. As an artist and as an actress, you have to be able to return to those places and incarnate again at that age.
Looking back, I was so shy. I was miserable in school, because I was like, I want to hide, and I don’t want to talk, and if someone calls me in class…. I was probably the exact opposite of you, but ballet is what made me feel comfortable enough to have a voice.
What would you say to black girls who want to dance and don’t feel able to express themselves?
I would say it is possible. The opportunities are there. You just have to believe in yourself and not let anyone’s words come in and define you and change your path. You are going to hear “no” in life no matter what you do. Just keep pushing and persevering. And I think it’s important to know that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or what shape your body is. Whatever you want to do, you should go for it.
What message do you want to share with the world? What issues matter most to you?
As a young black girl and as a black woman, I know how much of a focus there is on body issues, and at the same time, I think it’s good that we’ve really started to celebrate black bodies. But a lot of people took that [celebration] and turned it into a very overtly sexualized thing. It’s so important to me to lead by example and show people that black women are beautiful and strong. We don’t need to be seen one way or another.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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