Performing Arts

Misty Copeland shares advice from Prince: ‘You can be whatever you want to be’

On Set of Disney’s ‘The Nutcracker and The Four Realms’ with Misty Copeland

Join Misty Copeland on the set of Disney's 'The Nutcracker and The Four Realms' in this new featurette. The Nutcracker and The Four Realms will be in theaters November 2nd.
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Join Misty Copeland on the set of Disney's 'The Nutcracker and The Four Realms' in this new featurette. The Nutcracker and The Four Realms will be in theaters November 2nd.

This story was originally published in July 2017. Misty Copeland will appear in Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” opening Nov. 2, 2018.

Misty Copeland would like you to stop drinking soda now.

“And probably stop eating things that come from a vending machine that can survive for months at a time,” she said.

Copeland knows of what she speaks. Sure, she’s a world-famous ballet dancer in peak physical shape as a human being, but she has also been on the other side.

At some of her lowest points in her young career, she’d eat a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts in one sitting, or an entire Domino’s pizza. She didn’t eat so well as a kid, either.

“Growing up I ate a lot of really unhealthy things,” she said. “It’s all that was available financially for us. As an adult, not eating those things, I don’t want them. The things I enjoy, sweets or cookies, cake, pizza, it’s all in moderation.”

Copeland is in town Monday, July 31, at Unity Temple on the Plaza to discuss her new book, “Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You.” The event is sold out.

For Copeland, this is a return to the city of her birth. Her family left KC when she was very young, and she doesn’t have much in the way of childhood memories here.

“When I think of Kansas City, I think of family,” she said from New York. “I still have family there, though I don’t know them well.”

She does recall being in Kansas City on her birthday in 2001 — Sept. 10, 2001, to be exact. She and the American Ballet Theatre performed the next day as part of the Harriman-Jewell Series.

“I have a very interesting memory now of Kansas City: Seeing some family, but also 9/11,” she said.

Her story is well-chronicled, from the documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale” to her own autobiography, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.” At 13, she discovered ballet. Before that, she said, she grew up with no other purpose than surviving.

“I never was told, ‘You can be anything,’ ” Copeland, 34, said. “I never was told, ‘You’re great at this, or even if you’re not great at this we have the funds to support you.’ I never had any of that. There’s something psychologically that stops you from believing that you can.”

Nevertheless, as the saying goes, she persisted. In time, and with a lot of work, in 2015 she became the first African-American to be named principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre. Today she is that rare fine arts figure who’s known from the Metropolitan Opera House to Midwest living rooms.

In July, she served as a guest judge on Jennifer Lopez’s NBC reality dance show, “World of Dance.” She’s a spokeswoman for Under Armour. She has her own Barbie doll. She even showed up on the Steve Harvey show recently, where she met a company of young African-American dancers who squeeeee’d when they saw their idol. The encounter touched Copeland just as much as it did the young women.

“The thing is, I know what it is like to be them,” she said. “I have the same reaction looking at the stage and seeing diversity. It’s still so touching to be able to see yourself represented by more than one person. That’s the response I have when I see dancers of color.”

Copeland said when she was coming up with ABT, she went a decade without seeing anyone like her.

“Being the only black woman in the company for 10 years I felt so disassociated,” she said. “I started to hear a lot of negative feedback and things about dancers of color. It was just, ‘Whoa, what am I doing here? How did I end up in this world being a black woman?’

In time, she learned of other dancers who helped set the stage, and it gave her reason to keep working. She said she never lost focus, but learning of those who also blazed trails strengthened her.

“I thought maybe I could be their voice,” she said. “Maybe I could make them proud by being here, by speaking up about the lack of diversity in a way maybe they couldn’t, or didn’t feel comfortable. Just having a purpose bigger than myself changed my perspective about my career.”

One of the people she came to value for advice was musician Prince. She appeared in his video for “Crimson and Clover” and toured with him on and off for four years.

“He was someone I needed as a young person to say, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable as an adult, as a performer, as a professional,’ ” she said. “He encouraged me to not be embarrassed to take chances and to maybe do something that made me feel uncomfortable but might help me get to where I wanted to be as an artist.”

Today, her high profile grabs the attention of not only young dancers but of audiences and artistic directors as well. Through her example, companies can now see it’s not enough to stick with the same-old, same-old.

“What’s really most important, I think, as an artistic director is keeping your company up and running,” she said. “All we’ve ever been told is dancers look a certain way. And it’s really difficult to get people who have been a part of the ballet community for generations or sitting on a board of directors or giving money to see things differently and make change.”

Copeland said we’re in a different time now, and while the world is looking at ballet because of her, it’s not just the ballet community in the midst of a consciousness reset. Changes come around. Consider her own life story as metaphorical proof.

The world she was born into was less than perfect, yet she overcame, even though it took a long time for her to understand exactly how to do it. It’s a message she strives to get across to young people who look up to her.

“The situation and the environment that you’re born into was not your fault,” she said. “It’s not a weight that you should have to carry for the rest of your life. Living in America, we hold the power as adults to make decisions, to get scholarships, to get an education and make ourselves who we want to be. Create ourselves and create our own destinies. If it’s possible anywhere, it’s here.”

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese


Misty Copeland will be at Unity Temple on the Plaza at 7 p.m., Monday, July 31, to talk about her latest book, “Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You.” The event, presented by Rainy Day Books and Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, is sold out. More at