“This is for the little brown girls,” Misty Copeland repeats, like a refrain, throughout the introductory chapter of her encouraging memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.”
The only African-American soloist with American Ballet Theatre, the country’s premier ballet troupe, Copeland has penned a captivating account of her journey from impoverished child nomad to today’s most widely watched and fiercely scrutinized “brown ballerina.”
Copeland was born in Kansas City to mixed-race parents. At the age of 2, she and her siblings were whisked out of town on a Greyhound bus by their mother, a former Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader. Leaving her husband behind, Copeland’s mother transplanted the family to Los Angeles to live with what would turn out to be a series of new husbands and boyfriends.
During her chaotic childhood, Copeland suffered from anxiety and migraine headaches. While squatting for a time with relatives in a gang-ridden section of downtown L.A., Copeland feared repercussions from the red Chiefs decal her mother insisted on displaying in her car window. The red matched that of the Bloods, the rivals of the Crips, in whose territory they resided.
When Copeland was 13, a caring teacher arranged for her to study ballet on scholarship at a local studio. It was quickly discovered that Copeland was a prodigy. Children generally begin ballet by age 7 or 8 and undergo 10 years of training before acquiring professional-level technique.
Yet after three months of lessons, Copeland was dancing on pointe and five years later was a full-fledged member of ABT. Along the way, she got entangled in a custody battle — exposed in the national media — between her mother and a ballet instructor attempting to provide Copeland a stable home environment.
The ballerina’s heartrending story is written (with Charisse Jones) in a polished, professional, literary style that contrasts sharply with the grittiness of Copeland’s underprivileged upbringing. Yet the easy-to-read book’s positive, inspirational tone will resonate with youngsters, African-American or otherwise, aspiring to make their marks in ballet or similarly elitist fields.
Ballet mavens may be irked, however, by the book’s sprinkling of factual errors concerning repertory, roles and descriptions of technical movements. History buffs will appreciate the mentions of Raven Wilkinson, an African-American ballerina from the pre-civil rights era, who was forced to go to Holland to fulfill her career potential.
Aficionados may also enjoy Copeland’s behind-the-scenes revelations about major dance-world figures with whom she has worked. Did you know that during rehearsals choreographer Twyla Tharp snacks on lunch meat straight out of the Oscar Mayer plastic containers? And that male dancers hasten to remove their tops when Tharp attends rehearsal, because they know she likes watching them dance shirtless?
Racial issues figure prominently in Copeland’s memoir as she draws persuasively upon her personal experiences to spotlight the prejudices black dancers still encounter in ballet’s top echelons. In 2012, Copeland made history dancing the lead in choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s “Firebird” at ABT. She became the first African-American woman to perform the “Firebird’s“ iconic title role with a major ballet company.
Copeland’s overarching message is that she views her trailblazing achievements as victories not just for herself but for all classical dancers of color.
Recalling the time, three years ago, when she was dancing the role of the White Cat in “Sleeping Beauty’s” Puss-in-Boots variation, Copeland writes:
“The makeup person was standing at the ready with her container of powder to turn my face white. I looked at her. ‘I don’t understand why the cats have to be white,’ I said defiantly. ‘I want to be a brown cat.’ And so I was.”