Misty Copeland is relentless.
The famed ballerina’s strong, lithe legs seemed to almost blur Tuesday morning as she demonstrated another complex series of barre exercises. She stressed the importance of strength and training while persistently driving the 50 students in her Oklahoma City Ballet School Summer Intensive master class through plie and releve, tendu and sous sous.
“There’s a constant energy working to keep you on balance,” Copeland said, moving deftly among the dancers, firmly correcting postures and positions with a bright smile and a seemingly gentle touch as the 13- to 23-year-old students executed her instructions.
“Don’t hold on to the barre like ‘I might die.’ It’s just ballet.”
And Copeland, 31, is “just” the dancer who is bringing ballet not only to the mainstream but also to a more diverse group of aspiring artists. In 2007, she made history by becoming just the third black female soloist and first in two decades at New York’s esteemed American Ballet Theatre.
Since, the Kansas City, Mo., native has become the first black woman to play the title role in Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” starred in Prince’s “Crimson and Clover” music video, danced with TLC during a VH1 “Super Bowl Blitz” concert special and released her memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.” After her master class, about 150 people packed the OKC Ballet studios to hear Copeland talk about her career and get copies of her book signed.
“It does a lot for Oklahoma City when you have someone like Misty Copeland, who truly is an international superstar of ballet, come here. And her story is so unique,” said OKC Ballet Executive Director Shane Jewell, watching Copeland smilingly pose for photo after photo.
Copeland said she knew her dramatic personal history coupled with her historic position would bring her opportunities, but she never expected so many so quickly.
“I had no idea it would be in the midst of my career, but I thought it was something I would do once I was retired. So, it’s all a bit surprising,” Copeland said during a recent phone interview from New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, where she had just finished her last performance of the season, a matinee of “The Dream.”
“But it’s incredible to be able to share my story and my experience for this generation, because I feel like it’s really opening up, especially the African-American community, to a world that I think they felt never really a part of. So, I know it’s important for me to share at this point in my career while they can still come and see me dance. It’s really special.”
Growing up poor in San Pedro, Calif., Copeland was one of six children to a single mother who struggled to keep her brood fed and a roof over their heads. She was discovered at the relatively late age of 13 by a ballet teacher who came into a local Boys and Girls Club to offer free classes. Scholarship opportunities and summer intensives soon followed, leading to her joining American Ballet Theatre’s Corps De Ballet in 2001.
“I don’t think I had any idea of what the ballet world was, what my opportunities would be as a professional, where it would take me, that I could actually make money off of it and actually have a higher career and life built around it,” Copeland recalled. “But I knew I loved it, and I was being told over and over again that I had the potential to be a professional, so it was like, ‘I’m not doing anything else.’”
Along with becoming a Boys and Girls Club national ambassador, Copeland inspired American Ballet Theatre to launch Project Plie, an initiative to bring dance classes to the clubs around the country.
Between her master class and book signing Tuesday in Oklahoma City, Copeland happily met four students from OKC Ballet’s fledgling Project Plie program.
“It’s really cool to just sit with them and show them that I’m real,” Copeland said. “I think most people think of ballerinas as kind of either as a fairy tale, far-away thing that’s really not attainable, something they can’t grasp, or they think of them as European or Russian and kind of their nose up in the air. So, it’s cool for me to like sit with them and for them to really see themselves as me.”
After the meeting, local Project Plie student Kavi Zuniga, 11, couldn’t stop grinning as she clutched her signed copy of “Life in Motion.”
“She’s like sort of an inspiration to me because, I mean, I never thought I would become a ballerina. And now I’ve finally got a ballet class and now I’ve got a scholarship (to OKC Ballet School). And now it’s all awesome and I’m really, really happy,” Kavi said breathlessly.
It wasn’t just girls like Kavi who were inspired by their encounters with Copeland.
“You just hear a bunch about her and then just to have the opportunity for her to come down here and teach you, it’s just amazing. For her to share so much knowledge, it’s the best,” said Joshua Velazquez, 18, a Puerto Rican dancer from Joplin, Mo., who is attending the Summer Intensive.
“It’s great to just see her succeed. It’s kind of like I can do it, too.”
Along with emphasizing correct techniques and fundamentals, Copeland encouraged the master class students to hold on to their love of dancing. It’s advice she said she tries to take herself in the midst of her busy life. After her action-packed first visit to Oklahoma City, Copeland flew out Tuesday to Los Angeles, so she could appear as a guest judge on Wednesday’s episode of the TV series “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“I think a lot of ballet dancers, especially, have feelings about shows like ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ but I always say that you have to start somewhere. ... They wanted to bring on a judge who had trained in ballet and had a lot of experience to kind of educate their audience,” she said.
“I just take it one day at a time. Everything that I agree to, I’m generally passionate about, so I’m kind of like, ‘The opportunities are here, take them and do it while I’m young and I can.’ But you know, it’s always very clear to my team around me that my career is most important. So my ballet career is first and foremost, and any extra time I have is spent doing all these amazing things that are coming to me.”
At a glance
OKC Ballet’s Project Plie
Oklahoma City Ballet is among seven companies in the country who have joined Project Plie, an initiative largely inspired by American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland, who is just the third black soloist in the esteemed company’s history. The emerging ballet star, 31, was discovered at age 13 by a local dance teacher who came into a Boys and Girls Club to offer free classes.
The mission of Boys and Girls Clubs of America is to enable all young people, especially those who need help most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens. In January, OKC Ballet started offering free classes every other Monday during the school year at the club’s Memorial Park site.
Dance teacher and Oklahoma City Ballet company artist Gerald Pines recently selected five Project Plie participants who will receive full scholarships to attend OKC Ballet School: Cynita Williams, Kavi Zuniga, JaMya Boyd, Jaedan Jones and Ceniyah Corley.
For more information on OKC Ballet’s Project Plie, go to okcballet.com.