We cannot know whether Misty Copeland would have become America’s most celebrated ballet dancer if she had not met Cindy Bradley, the flame-haired instructor who first recognised and then sharpened her talents, but it seems unlikely. Then again, it’s doubtful that Copeland would have met Bradley if not for Elizabeth Cantine, the coach of her school drill team who urged her to check out the free ballet class at the Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro. Nor is it clear that Copeland would have joined Cantine’s squad without the encouragement of her adored older sister, Erica, a drill team star. It was Erica who helped Copeland choreograph an audition piece to George Michael’s I Want Your Sex. And who, knowing her story, can omit the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci from this roll call? As a seven-year-old, trying to emulate Comaneci’s pyrotechnics, Copeland instinctively understood “that rhythmic motion came as naturally to me as breathing,” to quote from her memoir, Life in Motion.
This is life, a cascading series of chance encounters and arbitrary choices that shape our destinies, but for a young black girl in a working-class Los Angeles suburb, who characterises her childhood as “packing, scrambling, leaving – often barely surviving,” catching the right breaks are nigh on impossible. Yet through whatever alchemy of grit, resilience and compulsion, Misty Copeland, a 65lb ragamuffin when she arrived at Bradley’s class, beat the odds. In August 2015 she was promoted to principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), the first black woman to achieve the distinction in the theatre’s 75-year history.
For millions of Americans, Copeland’s journey to the pinnacle of her profession is an archetypal story of triumph over adversity. At the Boys & Girls Club where she practised her first ballet steps, today’s visitor is confronted with a painting showing Copeland in a forlorn crouch, forehead resting on her knees. Around her swirl words like “agony”, “hurting”, “desolation”, “hardship” and “rejection”. Next to it is another painting in which Copeland pirouettes like a music box ballerina, music notes spiralling over her head. Nearby, a sign proclaims “Great Futures Start Here”. Copeland is the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who got to stand tall – on pointe shoes. “I’m often asked if I’m OK being referred to as the black ballerina,” she says. “And I say: ‘I don’t think that’s something I want to change.’ We’re still at a point where it needs to be acknowledged all the time.”
It is early afternoon, and in a small waiting area inside Steps on Broadway, one of New York’s best-known dance studios, Copeland sits scrunched up on a bench trying to talk above the din of wailing toddlers as they wait for a class to begin. Although they might not know it, Copeland is the acme of what those little girls dream to be, and a riposte to classical ballet’s long history of exclusion. It’s partly her Cinderella story that has made her a household name in a marginalised art, but it’s also a reflection of the astute way she has parlayed her visibility beyond the world of ballet. She has danced for Prince (in his 2010 Welcome 2 America tour), appeared in a 2014 commercial for Under Armour that quickly went viral, interviewed President Obama and made the cover of Time magazine in 2015 – the first dancer to do so since Bill T Jones in 1994. Her memoir is to be turned into a movie.
Predictably, none of that has stopped the envious from turning her success into a question. “People ask: ‘Is she getting this opportunity just because she’s had such a voice, and because she’s black, or is she good enough to get this part?’” says Copeland. “All of these things can mess with you psychologically and emotionally. You’d think it would get easier over time, but for me it gets harder.”
Copeland did not always perceive the prejudice she was up against as plainly as she does today. As an adolescent, dance was a safe harbour where she felt entirely at home. “Going to a school in southern California that was very diverse I never felt like I fitted in,” she says. “But stick me in a ballet studio surrounded by white girls, and I was, like: ‘Oh, I belong here.’ I wasn’t even thinking about the colour of my skin.”
A cripplingly shy child, at her happiest hiding in the closet playing Solitaire or locked in the bathroom listening to Mariah Carey, Copeland was 13 when she discovered dance, a belated epiphany. “Ballet was always an escape,” she says. “It was a place where I felt safe, and I didn’t have that in any aspect of my life growing up. I was so introverted because I felt that something could hurt me. There wasn’t always a man in our house who I trusted, or we weren’t always living in a place where I felt secure, and ballet was this one constant in my life that I could rely on.”
In many ways Copeland’s life is a powerful validation of the idea that talent is innate. “When I saw her in the gym, a tiny malnourished girl who stood with such poise and presence, I couldn’t believe it,” says Cantine. “I just said: ‘I’ll take that one.’” Copeland not only made the squad, she was made captain. But when Cantine recommended Bradley’s ballet class, Copeland was sceptical. “I was, like, ‘Absolutely not – this is as far as I go outside my comfort zone.’” She went to watch, just to please Cantine, dutifully returning every day for two weeks until Bradley persuaded her to join in. Copeland quickly realised she’d found her place. “It was the first time I ever felt beautiful,” she says. “Just to look in the mirror and to be told: ‘You’re what a ballerina looks like.”
Bradley, a former punk rocker who had enjoyed moderate success in the 1980s with a band called the Wigs, took to her new pupil instantly. The affection was mutual. Within eight weeks, Copeland had learned to dance en pointe, a skill that most young ballerinas take years to master. The moment of triumph is recorded in a photograph that Bradley had the foresight to snap: Copeland is ramrod straight on the point of her right foot, a smile suffusing her face. “Cindy was definitely a big part of my growth, not just as a dancer but as a person,” says Copeland. “I had never experienced someone forcing me to voice my opinion, and to communicate. I started to develop skills that were so underdeveloped in me.”
Copeland’s growing intimacy with Bradley came at a time when life at home was getting harder. Her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna, left one temperamental husband for another, and the family found itself living in a motel, sharing two rooms and pooling loose change to buy food. Copeland found her escape in ballet, but DeLaCerna worried the commute to class was too onerous, and told her daughter to quit. That was when Bradley persuaded DeLaCerna to let Copeland move in with her, sharing a room with her two-year-old son, Wolf. “I’d only been married for two years, and suddenly we had a teenage girl, and she stole our hearts, immediately,” says Bradley. On Fridays, Copeland would make matzo ball soup and light the Sabbath candles. “It just felt like this beautiful thing that they shared, and I think that’s what I was drawn to,” Copeland says. When the Bradleys had a professional family portrait taken, Copeland was part of it.
It’s not difficult to see how this would begin to grate on Copeland’s mother and siblings, who began describing their sister as brainwashed. When those pressures finally exploded, shortly after Copeland won a prestigious award for playing Kitri in her favourite ballet Don Quixote, the fallout was painful and highly public. DeLaCerna decided her daughter no longer needed the Bradleys; in response they encouraged Copeland to petition the courts for emancipation from her parents. DeLaCerna fought back, securing the legendary civil rights lawyer, Gloria Allred. Eventually, Copeland dropped her petition, but the damage was lasting. “It was very traumatic having so much of my life exposed for everyone to see,” she says. “It took 10 years before I could talk about it without crying.” It was no easier for Bradley. “It was a huge void that never healed,” she says. “I had so many things to say to her.” The two would not speak for 15 years.
In May, Copeland will play Kitri again, but this time in a production for the ABT. It’s the role of a lifetime, one she has dreamed about since seeing her idol, Paloma Herrera, play it in 1996. But Copeland is 34 now, and her journey has been arduous. In 2012, days after her critically lauded debut in the title role of Stravinsky’s Firebird, she discovered six stress fractures in her tibia. It would take seven months of physical therapy before she could return to the stage. Last year, she finally got to reprise her Firebird performance, one of several lead roles she took on as part of the ABT’s spring/summer season, including Odette in Swan Lake. She also married her long-time beau Olu Evans. Her promotion to principal dancer may be a vindication of her hard work, but she knows a dancer’s career is short. “A couple of weeks after I was promoted to principal dancer was the first time I felt: ‘This is the beginning of the end,’” she says. “I was promoted at a very late age for a dancer, so my career as a principal will definitely be shorter than most.” She thinks for a moment. “The scary thing is what will fill that void.” She laughs. “My poor husband.”
We live in an era, to quote dance critic Madison Mainwaring in The Atlantic, “when Kim Kardashian’s selfies get more serious coverage than dancers who have dedicated their lives to their form”. Copeland might be the exception that proves the rule, but the vitality of classical dance in America rides on the trail she’s blazing. At a time of heightened consciousness around black identity, her story has lured new audiences to classical dance. Is it enough? “The ballet world is constantly talking about how we need more exposure, to bring more people in, but they don’t want to change anything about it,” Copeland says, with exasperation. “It doesn’t work that way, something has to change and evolve.”
It’s a bright blue morning in San Pedro, and the city glows after weeks of abnormally high rainfall. In her black Volkswagen Beetle, Bradley is pointing out the landmarks of Copeland’s youth. “Did you see the sign?” she asks, pointing to a plaque that reads “Misty Copeland Square” at an intersection adjacent to the San Pedro Ballet School, a former bakery that Bradley and her husband, Patrick, bought in 1998. The plaque was unveiled just before Christmas in 2015, and if you Google footage of the ceremony, you will see a visibly moved Copeland thanking the Bradleys “for giving me a path and platform to change not only my life, but so many little brown girls’ lives”.
Bradley drives me to her former condo, near a bluff overlooking the ocean. In her memoir, Copeland recalls it smelling of cinnamon and the sea. We sit in the car for a while, and Bradley tells stories of Copeland helping to potty-train Wolf, dancing with him, being a sister. “It seems like yesterday,” she sighs. “I knew it wasn’t going to end well from the start. It was wonderful, but very scary, feeling that every minute was going to be our last.” She pauses. “But it worked out OK.”
Our tour ends where the story begins – at the Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro. Inside the gymnasium, Bradley indicates the lines of benches. “She wasn’t just watching casually – she was absorbing while she was sitting there,” she says, summoning the image. “She didn’t move, she watched intently for a few weeks and kept saying ‘No, no, no’, until finally she stepped on to the floor. She was a skinny, skinny brown girl with pretty hair.”
Ever since Bradley could dance, she has wanted to teach. “I just thought: ‘Everybody needs to know this,’” she says. In Copeland she found her first prodigy. “I touched her foot and that’s when the magic happened,” she says, lost in a private reverie. “I’ve never been able to describe it before, but I knew she was special.” Blinking back tears, she shakes her head in astonishment. “She hadn’t danced!” she says. “It was an angels singing moment.” That same day, Bradley offered Copeland a scholarship, sending a note home to her mother.
We walk back through the club, past the twin posters of Misty Copeland in despair and triumph, the pool table, the vending machine dispensing frozen fruit bars, the spray-painted symbol of the power fist. And as we emerge into the sunlight, Bradley recovers her composure. “I have actually just found my second prodigy – Enrique.” She pulls out her phone. “I’ll show you a picture.” Like Copeland, Enrique started late (at 16), and like Copeland, he is beset by challenges, most having to do with being a Latino man in a world still defined as white and female. “It’s the first I’ve talked about him, because I learned the first time you should not talk about them too much,” says Bradley. She laughs, before adding: “Until you’re ready to lose them.” We both peer at the photo. “This is a while ago, so he’s more spectacular now,” she says, beaming. “He’s got it all.”
Hair and Make-up by Bank using Pacifica at Factory Downtown; Producer Stephanie Porto; Digital Tech Jordan Zuppa; Lighting perry hall and JP Herrera; Set design Chris Stone; location Steps on Broadway, NYC
Life in Motion by Misty Copeland is published by Sphere, £9.99. Order it for £8.49 at bookshop.theguardian.com