Misty Copeland’s remarkable story is the sort you can imagine depicted by a skilled novelist; her life, in the words of a 2015 “60 Minutes” report, is “the embodiment of the American dream.”
Growing up as one of six children in an often-struggling Southern California family (she was born in Kansas City), she lived for some time with her mother and siblings in two rooms in a highwayside motel. At the Boys & Girls Club gym one day, a teacher noticed something distinctive in the tiny, quiet 13-year-old’s movements and suggested a ballet class.
Fast-forward to today: Copeland, now 34, has become the first African-American principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s most revered classical ballet companies. A dancer of rare power and musicality (and an astonishing prodigy in a profession where most preteens have already undergone years of training), she has performed leading roles on the company’s New York City stage and around the world and looks forward to performing her first “Giselle” this spring.
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And she has shared her story: in a 2015 film documentary, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” and through writing, with a best-selling 2014 memoir (“Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina”), a children’s book (“Firebird”) and now a health and fitness book, “Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger and More Graceful You.”
Though Copeland worked with writer Charisse Jones on both “Life in Motion” and “Ballerina Body,” the books stemmed from her longtime practice of keeping a journal.
“That’s been a go-to for me since the age of 15,” said Copeland last month in a telephone interview from New York. (It was late morning her time on a Monday, and in the way of all ballerinas, she had just emerged from a two-hour daily class.)
“I was really shy, and it was hard for me to communicate with people through words,” she said, of how her writing habit began. “It was a nice way to express myself by writing things down in my journal.”
Though she said she has made less frequent entries since marrying her longtime boyfriend, attorney Olu Evans, last summer, she still turns to her journal “when there are really big things and moments that happen in my life, if I’m really struggling with something. When I’m alone on the road, I write more.”
The process of writing with Jones felt “very organic,” said Copeland, beginning with photocopies of the journals and evolving into emailing back and forth. Though both books contain elements of Copeland’s life story, they are distinctly different: “Life in Motion” is a compelling memoir of a chaotic childhood and the revelation of falling in love with dance; “Ballerina Body,” with exercises and recipes, is more of a how-to book wrapped in an inspiring message.
“The misconception of dancers having eating disorders is something constantly brought up to me,” Copeland said, of the impetus for her new book. “I felt like it couldn’t be a better time to really give people who aren’t explicitly part of the ballet world a real, true inside view of what it feels like to be a dancer.”
In quiet rebuke to the idea of the ballerina as a fragile flower, Copeland filmed an ad for the athletic-wear company Under Armour in 2014, showcasing her powerfully muscled yet lithe body. (It now has more than 10 million YouTube views.)
“Under Armour gave me a platform to showcase that dancers are athletes,” Copeland said. “There’s no way we could perform and rehearse without filling our bodies with food and taking care of ourselves, the same way any athlete would.”
In addition to practical advice about food and fitness, “Ballerina Body” goes deeper in a chapter devoted to mentoring, obviously something deeply personal for Copeland (who, to this day, is still involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America). “We’re human beings, not robots — we have days when we’re down and we need that support from people we trust and respect,” she said.
In a journal entry in the book, Copeland describes how, in her early years at ABT, she learned about Raven Wilkinson, who danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s as the company’s first African-American ballerina.
“I felt an emotional attachment and connection that I didn’t know I yearned for,” she wrote. “I felt for the first time what my purpose might be in this rarefied elite white world.”
Copeland’s manager planned a meeting with the now-81-year-old Wilkinson.
“We learned that she lived about two blocks from me, and she had been attending my performances since the time I joined the company,” said Copeland, her voice indicating thrilled wonderment. “We ended up doing a radio interview and a talk about the two generations of black ballerinas. She’s still very much a part of my life, such a positive light.”
In her book, Copeland urges readers looking for inspiration to find people they admire — to approach authors at book signings, for example. For her part, she feels like “an open book” in presenting her life’s experiences to the world.
When approached, she said, “I always encourage younger dancers to surround themselves with support, to believe in themselves, to feel comfortable in their own skin and try not to get caught up in society’s standards of what’s acceptable, what’s beautiful. That’s really hard in this day and age.”
“Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You” by Misty Copeland (240 pages; Grand Central Life & Style, $30)