Exclusive: Misty Copeland on Her History-Making Year

by Virginia Coyne

The ABT principal dancer reflects on her upcoming peformance at Wolf Trap, chatting with President Obama, her involvement with the Boys & Girls Clubs and her new dancewear line.

Misty Copeland will dance the role of Juliet at Wolf Trap on July 15. (Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.)

Misty Copeland will dance the role of Juliet at Wolf Trap on July 15. (Photo by Rosalie O’Connor)

In Shakespeare’s most well-known play, Romeo is smitten by Juliet while watching her dance, so taken by her poise and beauty that he declares, ”Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.” One might argue the same about Misty Copeland, who in 2015 was appointed the American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT’s) first female African-American principal dancer.

This month, she plays the lead in “Romeo and Juliet” at Wolf Trap on July 15, one of three nights the company will perform at the outdoor venue. Copeland granted only one interview to an area publication ahead of her performance and it was to Washington Life. She shared her thoughts on taking on the role of Juliet, the intense media attention she’s received in recent years, her new dancewear line and her involvement with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Copeland gently evaded questions about her upcoming wedding to Olu Evans, a cousin of actor Taye Diggs, making it clear she prefers keeping her personal life out of the spotlight.

Washington Life: Did you know it has been 31 years since the American Ballet theatre last performed at wolf trap?
Misty Copeland: Wow. I knew it had been a while but didn’t know the exact timing. When I was first introduced to ballet and hadn’t seen many live performances, one of the videos that was shown to me over and over again was of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland at Wolf Trap. I remember obsessing over the video and knowing what Wolf Trap was since I was 13. So I feel performing there is a part of ABT history, and for us to be able to come back after all this time and for me to do Juliet there is a dream come true. To do Juliet in an outdoor theater is so romantic.

WL: What it is like to take on Juliet?
MC: It’s a role I never imagined myself dancing. Once I performed it [for the first time] last year, I understood that acting is a strength of mine which I had never truly developed before, so it’s exciting to be able to grow even more.

WL: Why did you never imagine yourself in this role?
MC: Once I became a professional dancer and was a soloist for as long as I was, those dreams of being a principal dancer went out the window. You don’t realistically imagine yourself ever getting the opportunity to do these roles.

Misty Copeland on the July 2016 cover of Washington Life. (Photo by Nicholas LaClair)

Misty Copeland on the July 2016 cover of Washington Life. (Photo by Nicholas LaClair)

WL: Today you are a principal dancer with the ABT and there has been so much media frenzy surrounding you. You’ve appeared on magazine covers and on morning television, have your own Barbie doll and have been interviewed about race alongside President Obama. What has that been like?
MC: I feel like it’s become a part of my job and part of what I’ve wanted in terms of getting ballet out there to a broader audience. The fact is that I feel the sacrifices I have to make in my personal life are worth it to be able to get that out there to more people and be involved with grand opportunities to really speak about race and diversity and ballet. It’s really just become a part of my job and how I approach it. It doesn’t feel like something that’s come on really suddenly. It’s been a slow go over the past four years or so. I’m still extremely focused on my career and on my dancing because that’s the reason that I’m getting this attention, so that has to be number one for me.

WL: Tell me about the recent time magazine interview with you and President Obama. That must have been surreal.
MC: Yes. [laughs] It was extremely surreal. I feel like every opportunity I get to stand next to someone who represents such a big group of people in a powerful and positive way, you just have to step back and really try to be as present as possible in those moments. It’s been incredible just to have met him as many times as I have and then to have had an actual conversation with him about the issues of race and body image. I feel it’s a great thing for the black community to see people from these different arenas coming together and discussing something so important.

WL: Why is it important to you to discuss race and body issues?
MC: It’s been a big part of my struggle in my craft and in my career – the lack of diversity in classical ballet, the lack of opportunities for different body types and the perception of what a ballerina should look like. I’ve kind of gone against all of those things, so it’s extremely important for me to represent the many people who feel they don’t have the opportunity or aren’t given a fair chance to be a part of this world. It’s important to see two African Americans represented at that level. I want African Americans and minorities to be accepting and owning of who they are and not feeling they have to be something else to be successful or to be perceived as beautiful.

WL: You’re also very involved in the Boys & girls Clubs of America. How did your involvement begin and how does it continue today?
MC: It was the first organization that I was ever really part of as a child and my second home growing up, probably from the age of seven. That’s where I discovered ballet, through classes that they offered to find more diversity and to give minority children the opportunity to get real ballet training. It all started there for me so it makes sense coming full circle to still be able to be a part of the organization, give back to my community and to incorporate ballet into more Boys & Girls Clubs. That’s the whole reasoning for Project Plie, a diversity initiative by the American Ballet Theatre in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Clubs to develop a program that’s structured off the way I found ballet. It’s wonderful to have watched this thing grow. We have partnerships with local ballet companies all over America that are joining forces with us to reach out to communities that don’t have the means to be part of the classical ballet world or just aren’t educated in it. It’s pretty amazing to see the diversity in this program.

WL: It’s unusual that you started dancing at the age of 13 when most ballerinas begin lessons at a very young age. how were you able to do that, and do you think starting later has made it easier in terms of wear and tear on your body?
MC: No. [laughs] Physically, I naturally had the flexibility and muscle tone to be able to start as late as I did. The reason you start training at such a young age is to mold and strengthen the muscles, to make it second nature and to really be able to get the body to form before you hit puberty. I didn’t hit puberty until I was 19, so my body was still very capable of being molded. In terms of wear and tear, it’s not when you’re young that you have to worry about it, but when you’re older and your body is not as loose and more prone to injury. The one benefit of starting late is that I didn’t burn out at a young age. A lot of young athletes spend their childhood training and when they get to be 13 want to have a normal life. For me, I was just getting started and was so eager. I trained just four years before coming to ABT.

WL: Tell me about your dancewear line debuting this summer.
MC: It’s called Egal, which means equal in French. It’s taken a while to really understand how to develop a brand without having help from a larger brand. I really wanted to do this on my own because I felt strongly about my vision. The reason that I started it was that I couldn’t find leotards that had inner support for a large chest. That is really not something that is made for dancers. We come in all shapes and sizes yet dancewear is made for tiny, petite people who don’t have busts. I wanted to really make something that would work for every type of woman. In the future, we will do plus sizes as well, because the lack of plus sizes is really pathetic.

WL: you have another big event coming up this summer. Aren’t you getting married?
MC: [laughs] Yes. I have so much happening right now that it’s been so far from my mind. But yes, it’s happening.

WL: Can you give us any details?
MC: The thing is, I don’t even know what I’m wearing yet!

WL: What do you do in your free time when you’re not dancing, designing clothing, making public appearances and volunteering?

MC: It’s hard because I really enjoy taking advantage of the opportunities that have been given to me. A lot of my free time is spent on these things. Of course, I find time to get away. I like to travel, relax and cook. And I love going to concerts, hearing music and trying to find moments to be normal and enjoy life.

This story appears in the July issue of Washington Life Magazine.

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