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.’”