Misty Copeland performs in Swan Lake.

Misty Copeland performs in Swan Lake.

Misty Copeland went from a child living in poverty in a motel to a breakout star in the world of ballet. She discovered her extraordinary talent at the late age of 13, and just four years later, escaped her tumultuous childhood to join the elite American Ballet Theatre. This week, she became the first African American female principal dancer in the company’s history. But she remains one of very few black women in the highest ranks of classical ballet nationwide, and says we need change in an art form that is stuck in the past. We listen back to our March conversation with ballerina Misty Copeland on her unlikely rise to stardom, and bringing color to the white world of ballet.

Guests

  • Misty Copeland Principal, American Ballet Theatre; author of a memoir titled "Life in Motion," and the children's book "Firebird," both released last year.

Behind The Scenes With Misty Copeland

Full Video

Video: Misty Copeland's "I Will What I Want"

Misty Copeland appeared in an Under Armour campaign last year.

Read A Featured Excerpt

Excerpted from “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina Touchstone” by Misty Copeland. 2014. Reprinted with permission. All Rights Reserved.

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. This week, Misty Copeland achieved what no other African-American woman ever has, the rank of principle dancer with the American Ballet Theater, one of the country's most elite ballet companies. She says it's time to change our image of the ideal ballerina as white, willowy and fragile.

  • 11:07:20

    MS. DIANE REHMLast year, an Under Armour ad highlighting Copeland's athleticism went viral, fueling a new conversation about what a modern day ballerina can look like. Misty Copeland joined me in studio back in March. You can see video of our conversation at drshow.org.

  • 11:07:44

    MS. DIANE REHMMisty Copeland, I'm so glad to meet you.

  • 11:07:46

    MS. MISTY COPELANDIt's so nice to meet you as well. Thank you for having me.

  • 11:07:49

    REHMMy pleasure. Tell us a little about your childhood, which I have found so fascinating.

  • 11:07:59

    COPELANDYou know, whenever I used to think of my childhood, to me it was very normal and average and what I thought most children probably experienced. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and moved to Los Angeles, the Los Angeles area in California when I was two years old. My mother raised six kids pretty much on her own and by the time I was 13 years old, we had -- my mom had been divorced already a couple of times and we moved around quite a bit.

  • 11:08:35

    COPELANDBut, you know, all of us kids were together and that was just what we were used to and we really held onto each other and supported each other and didn't feel we needed so much because we had each other. I was very shy as a child and it was very easy to stay that way when you're surrounded by so many kids, you know, just wanting the attention of my mother. Very loud and a lot of chaos, but fun and happy times.

  • 11:09:06

    COPELANDBut I always was the one kind of hiding in the back. I never really felt a connection to anything. I was just existing, trying to survive in school without being noticed.

  • 11:09:17

    REHMAnd that's what I was going to ask you about. What was school like? Did you move around a fair amount?

  • 11:09:25

    COPELANDBy the time I was in middle school and high school, no matter where we moved, we made our way back to the same high school. So we weren't changing schools. We were just traveling a lot further a lot of time. It would be on the public bus a lot of the time, just me and my older brothers or me and my older sister maybe over an hour to get to our school so that we could stay in the same school.

  • 11:09:51

    REHMAnd this was because your mother was moving around a lot.

  • 11:09:57

    COPELANDYes.

  • 11:09:59

    REHMIs it true you were living in motels most of the time?

  • 11:10:04

    COPELANDBy the time I was 13 years old, and that was the same time that I started taking ballet classes, we were living in a motel. It was probably the most difficult time that my mother experienced in terms of not being employed and just trying to raise all of us kids and it got to that point where she was just trying to do the best she could to keep us off the street.

  • 11:10:28

    COPELANDAnd, you know, we made do and it wasn't that big of a deal to us, but we definitely kept it a secret from, you know, our friends and people at school, but it was -- it couldn't have been more perfect timing, I think, for me during that very difficult time that I found ballet.

  • 11:10:50

    REHMHow did you find ballet?

  • 11:10:54

    COPELANDI was already a member of the Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, California, where I was attending school. It was just right around the corner. So when my mother was working, that's where all of my siblings went. I was very interested in movement from a young age, and music. And I naturally would create movement, even though I didn't know what I was doing and I didn't really have anything that was motivating me.

  • 11:11:23

    COPELANDI saw some gymnastics on the television and I think that was something that kind of influenced me. So I decided to audition for the drill team at my school and had no dance experience. And most of the girls did and I auditioned for the captain of the team and I was selected to be captain, which was a big deal with no training.

  • 11:11:46

    REHMI should say, yeah.

  • 11:11:48

    COPELANDAnd from there, the coach of the drill team suggested I start taking ballet classes because she saw potential in me beyond just dancing in the school team.

  • 11:11:58

    REHMBut how in the world could your mother afford ballet classes?

  • 11:12:04

    COPELANDThat wasn't even something that I was aware of or thought about it. It was something that was offered to me. I didn't know what ballet was and I'd never heard classical music before and I didn't really have any interest in going to that ballet class. It was kind of pushed on me. The teacher -- the coach said, you know, you already attend the Boys and Girls Club.

  • 11:12:25

    COPELANDThere's a local ballet teacher that's there trying to find children that may not have the exposure to it or have the means to be a part of the ballet world and she's looking for kids there to bring into her school on scholarship.

  • 11:12:40

    REHMDo you remember that very first day?

  • 11:12:44

    COPELANDI do.

  • 11:12:45

    REHMTell us.

  • 11:12:45

    COPELANDWell, I was going into the -- it was on a basketball court in the gym in the Boys and Girls Club. There was no dance studio at the time at the Boys and Girls Club so that where the ballet class was being offered. They would just move bars to the middle of the basketball court and that's where we took class. I was terrified of doing anything that was different and unfamiliar to me.

  • 11:13:11

    COPELANDThat's just how I was as a child. So for the first couple of weeks, I would walk into the basketball court and just kind of hide in the bleachers and check it out. And finally, the teacher came to me and said, you're Misty, right? I've heard all about you and I've been told you were going to take the class. And she really had to pull me in to take the class because it was just not something that I felt comfortable doing.

  • 11:13:39

    COPELANDBut that first day, I wasn't aware that I was going to be taking the class. I thought I'd be hiding out in the bleachers again. And my excuse was I don't have anything to wear. I don't own a leotard or tights, whatever else you guys wear. So she said that doesn't matter. Go put on your gym clothes. So I put on my sweat shorts and my T-shirt and my socks and that's where I took my first ballet class in those clothes on a basketball court.

  • 11:14:07

    REHMAnd do you recall how it felt?

  • 11:14:12

    COPELANDI never experienced someone being so focused on me, just me. I never had that in my life. And she was just so intrigued by my physique, by my body and what it was capable of and it was so new to me. I was very interested in this woman. Like, I don't understand what she sees in me and what she's doing to me. But I didn't really fall in love with it until she took me into her ballet school and I got my first leotard and my tights and my ballet slippers and I could see myself in the mirror.

  • 11:14:51

    COPELANDAnd I think that's the first time I thought, wow, I look like a ballerina. Physically, I look like what the other girls around me.

  • 11:15:00

    REHMCan you explain to us what she saw in you so early on?

  • 11:15:11

    COPELANDI think from the beginning, just the proportions of my body were ideal for ballet. The flexibility that I had naturally, the musculature, you know, what I had in my legs and in my back, in my arms, all of these things that people spend 10 years to get their body to form this way and I naturally had these things, even though I'd never done it before. She would show me a step and I could just imitate what she was doing and remember it.

  • 11:15:41

    COPELANDAll of these things she said she'd never experienced before with a dancer, especially at 13 years old when usually by that point, you body has already, you know, started to kind of set itself in what it's going to be like and it's hard to get the body to get more flexible and to get strong enough, once you get to that point.

  • 11:16:04

    REHMHow tall were you and how tall are you now?

  • 11:16:09

    COPELANDOh, I was so small at the time. I'm not really sure. Maybe 4'10" and really, really thin, just pure muscle. Now, I'm 5'2" and a half. Not much has changed. But yes, I've always been on the shorter side.

  • 11:16:29

    REHMWhich is not normally the way we think of ballerinas.

  • 11:16:35

    COPELANDRight. It's not how people think of ballerinas, though I can name some pretty incredible superstar ballerinas that were my height or shorter. Gelsey Kirkland and Natalia Makarova were all on the smaller side, but I think people tend to just think we're bigger also because if you have a stage presence and they see you on stage, they assume you're just larger than life.

  • 11:17:00

    REHMAnd, of course, you mentioned your musculature and that, in itself, was very different.

  • 11:17:11

    COPELANDIt was. I think it's just something that runs in my family. We all have very muscular bodies and around school, people knew who we were from behind because we all had the Copeland calves, which was something that really, really helped me in the beginning. Had I not had the strength, then I wouldn't have been able to do what I was doing in such a short amount of time.

  • 11:17:38

    REHMMisty Copeland, prima ballerina and her books "Life In Motion" and "Firebird." Stay with us.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd Misty Copeland is here in the studio with us. She is a remarkable ballet dancer. Her book, a New York Times bestseller, is called "Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina." And then she's written a book for children titled, "Firebird," with a ballerina on the cover in gorgeous red. And you danced the Firebird.

  • 11:20:40

    COPELANDYes.

  • 11:20:41

    REHMTell us about that experience.

  • 11:20:43

    COPELANDIt was an incredible opportunity for me. I'm 32 years old now. And at the time I was 29 years old when I was given the opportunity to dance the role of Firebird. I had been a soloist for quite some time already. And if you don't get an opportunity to dance a principal role pretty shortly after you're promoted to soloist, it normally doesn't happen and you're going to stay a soloist. And most likely, you won't be promoted to principal. So for me to get the opportunity to do this iconic role at such a late age, for it to be my first really big principal role, it meant everything to me.

  • 11:21:25

    COPELANDAnd I knew that this was the opportunity of a lifetime for me to show that I'm fully mature enough emotionally, capable strength-wise, stamina-wise to become this character and to be a principal dancer. And it also, you know, just as an African-American woman getting that opportunity in a company like American Ballet Theatre, where that role had never been danced by a black woman, it just stood for so much more for me.

  • 11:21:54

    REHMMisty, what was it like for you to be in the company of these white ballerinas and you, among the rarest of the rare?

  • 11:22:09

    COPELANDMm-hmm. You know, it took me awhile to really understand that I was alone. I think that just the way my mother raised me, it wasn't something that I was -- you know, I was aware that I was, you know, I was going to be viewed by the world as a black woman. She made that very clear to me and my siblings, even though we are biracial. But we never really looked at, you know, I never really felt like, "Oh, I'm the only black one." Even when I was in my ballet class at -- from a young age. But once I became a professional, it actually was brought to my attention by an adult. And that's kind of when I stepped back and thought, "Wow, this is a little bit strange, to be the only black woman in a company of 80 dancers."

  • 11:22:55

    COPELANDAnd for a decade, I was. I just went through times where, you know, I felt extremely alone. I felt like when I was trying, you know, I was going through puberty and I was, you know, you join a company when you're 17 years old pretty much. And you really want to feel accepted and you want to feel like you can connect with people. And I really, really struggled with that for a long time.

  • 11:23:18

    REHMDid those around you contribute to that struggle?

  • 11:23:25

    COPELANDI don't think it was conscious but, yes. Just not maybe having a lot of experience being around another African American (laugh) , they made some comments I think that made me feel uncomfortable. You know, I think also just not having experience with having a black woman in a ballet company, that people don't really know how to address certain issues in a way that would make them feel comfortable. And it's something that I'm trying to bring awareness to, so that for the next generation, they don't have to have those awkward moments or feel that they're being talked down to or that they don't belong.

  • 11:24:16

    COPELANDI had experiences, you know, it's a part of certain ballets and the esthetic to make your skin lighter. And it's just been a part of the ballet history from the beginning. If you're doing a classical ballet where it's called the white act, and you're supposed to either be a ghost or they want you to, you know, not look human. But when it comes to black dancers, they have always asked for them to make their skin the same color as the other dancers, rather than just making their skin sort of a matte color, but what works for them. And that's something that I definitely addressed from a young age, when I was in the corps de ballet, like, that I didn't understand why I had to make my skin whiter.

  • 11:25:06

    COPELANDBut that's been an issue and a part of the ballet tradition and history for so long. And it definitely, I think, psychologically messed with me.

  • 11:25:19

    REHMWell, and going through puberty, as you said, changed your body rather radically. Tell us what happened.

  • 11:25:30

    COPELANDYeah. It's very typical for a young professional, especially being an athlete. A lot of athletes, you know, were so active that puberty may be stunted and it might just happen later in life. And for me, I was 19 years old. So when I was already accepted into the company, they saw me in a certain way. And you're expected to be an adult. So they're not, you know, necessarily there to take care of you and tell you what to do. But you do have to look a certain way as a professional athlete and as a professional artist, as a ballerina. So to have my body kind of just change in front of them, it was like, "Well, that's not the dancer we hired and you have to make -- you have to make your body right for ballet again."

  • 11:26:16

    REHMWhat happened?

  • 11:26:19

    COPELANDIt...

  • 11:26:22

    REHMYou began to blossom.

  • 11:26:23

    COPELANDYes. I, you know, I developed breasts and they were a lot bigger than the dancers' around me. The development of my muscle even started to change. And I just started to gain more weight. And I had no idea how to take care of my body. I'd never experienced eating a certain way. Throughout my childhood, I naturally had the physique that I had and it was never something that was brought to my attention, that I'm an athlete and I have to fuel my body for everything that I'm putting it through, up to eight hours a day of dancing. I didn't understand that. So when my body changed and I realized, "Wow, I really have to think about what I'm putting in it," it was a huge shock to me.

  • 11:27:09

    COPELANDAnd I didn't have a support system around me that was there to help me along the way. That happens a lot with young professional dancers.

  • 11:27:16

    REHMNow, at what point was it that you moved to live with your dance instructor...

  • 11:27:27

    COPELANDMm-hmm.

  • 11:27:27

    REHM...and her husband. And your mother pushed to get you back.

  • 11:27:36

    COPELANDIt was very shortly after I started taking lessons with her. So I was 13 years old when I moved in with her and her family. It was definitely necessary. It was really difficult for me to get back and forth to ballet classes. We attempted to do that and it was just too much. My sister was, you know, taking the bus with me -- my older sister -- to and from. And she was trying to, you know, she was in school still, because my mother was working and trying to take care of all of us. So it just made sense. And my teacher explained that this happens all the time with young dancers, that they go off and they, you know, at 13 years old, they go to boarding schools and they, you know, train professionally.

  • 11:28:20

    COPELANDSo it's not that uncommon. And she's not going to be that far away from home, just a city over. So when I moved in, it became my sole focus. Which is what I needed, because I wanted to be a professional and I had a very short amount of time to get the training in. But after the course of maybe two years, my mother just -- it wasn't a world that my family was familiar with. And she just didn't feel that it was okay that I wasn't living at home with my siblings and with her. And that at one point, I was going to be leaving and graduating high school and going off to wherever to dance. So she really wanted that time with me and felt that my siblings should have that time with me as well.

  • 11:29:04

    COPELANDSo after about three years, she really fought to get me back home. It was a very difficult transition for me. I think I was kind of kept out of the loop in terms of what was actually going on. I was being told by my teacher that, if I moved back home, I might not dance anymore. And it was a scary thing. You know, ballet became my identity -- the first time that I had an identity and a voice and that I saw a future in -- with something. And it was terrifying.

  • 11:29:39

    REHMSo you did move back home.

  • 11:29:42

    COPELANDI did. I eventually moved back home right before my 16th birthday. And I ended up going to another ballet school for the last two years of my training before I joined American Ballet Theatre.

  • 11:29:57

    REHMSo you no longer had your original teacher.

  • 11:30:01

    COPELANDRight.

  • 11:30:02

    REHMYou had to make the break with her.

  • 11:30:04

    COPELANDYes.

  • 11:30:05

    REHMThat must have been difficult.

  • 11:30:08

    COPELANDIt was extremely difficult. She had become more than just a teacher to me. She, again, was the first person that I felt gave me such individual encouragement and attention. And she was nurturing me to be more than just a ballerina but, I think, a whole human being. And I think I was really underdeveloped at that point, when I came to her, just because it was so easy for me to get away with hiding behind my siblings. And I was never really pushed to speak and to really think critically about things. And not just Cindy, my teacher, but I think also ballet gave me that -- that strength and that voice.

  • 11:30:59

    REHMAre you still in touch with her?

  • 11:31:02

    COPELANDYes.

  • 11:31:03

    REHMGood.

  • 11:31:04

    COPELANDI am.

  • 11:31:05

    REHMGood. How did you -- how well did you do with your school studies?

  • 11:31:13

    COPELANDI was a very good student. I think that's something that makes me such a good dancer, is because -- well, a lot of ballet dancers, especially, are such perfectionists. And that was just innate in me from a young age. So even if it wasn't -- I didn't feel that I was particularly good at something in school, I worked so hard and I studied so hard to do well. So I definitely had that ingrained in me from a young age. And so that's what -- why I did so well in school. But it was a tool that I benefited from as a dancer, just working really hard and not giving up until I was somewhat satisfied with what I was doing.

  • 11:31:56

    REHMBut it had to have been so hard to go back home, continue your school studies, continue with the ballet. As you said, your mother really did not understand very much the world of ballet. Did she, at any point, attempt to stand in your way?

  • 11:32:27

    COPELANDNo, absolutely not. My mother and my family, they were always extremely supportive. You know, we were learning together, you know, what it was to be a part of the ballet world. And it was, you know, a learning process for all of us. By the time I had moved back in with her, I had experienced going away to San Francisco Ballet for the summer. I think that everyone in my family started to grasp the talent that I had and what was possible for me.

  • 11:32:56

    REHMAnd was it all on scholarship?

  • 11:33:00

    COPELANDYes.

  • 11:33:01

    REHMWas it all being paid for by your first teacher?

  • 11:33:06

    COPELANDAll of my training was scholarship. Not -- just by amazing people that, you know, came into my life and they saw the talent and the potential and they wanted to help me. Whenever I went away to summer-intensive programs, I was given full scholarship, airfare, room and board. So it was exciting that people were interested in me and wanted me to be there and wanted to help. But I wouldn't have had the opportunities and the training that I had, if it wasn't for, number one, the Boys & Girls Club, and for all of the scholarships that I was given.

  • 11:33:44

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What about your siblings? How did they fare?

  • 11:33:56

    COPELANDIt's pretty incredible that, with our experiences throughout our childhood, all six of us have gone on to do such great things. It's pretty remarkable. I think that something about our bond and coming from my mother and seeing her strength in raising us, we have always been survivors. And we were going to do whatever it took to succeed. And all of us have done that. And it makes me so proud of all of them.

  • 11:34:31

    REHMSo I know you are coming to Washington because you're going to be at the Kennedy Center...

  • 11:34:40

    COPELANDYes.

  • 11:34:41

    REHM...in two weeks, performing "Swan Lake"...

  • 11:34:45

    COPELANDMm-hmm.

  • 11:34:46

    REHM...as the lead dancer, with a black male...

  • 11:34:51

    COPELANDYes.

  • 11:34:51

    REHM...dancer. How does that make you feel?

  • 11:34:55

    COPELANDIt's not something I ever thought I would witness. I never saw "Swan Lake" as an opportunity for me to dance the lead, simply because I've never seen it. Lauren Anderson, principal dancer -- former principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, I think was pretty much the first or one of the first to dance the role of Odette Odile, a black woman. But I never saw it. I saw photos. But in a company like American Ballet Theatre, it had never been done before. It's never been done in any elite, international ballet company. So when I was presented the opportunity to dance with an African-American dancer -- and Brooklyn Mack is not just any dancer, he's an incredible artist and partner, and he's so powerful -- it was just, like, "Wow."

  • 11:35:56

    COPELANDThis means so much for the ballet world. And it's going to just knock people's socks off, I think.

  • 11:36:06

    REHMI'll bet.

  • 11:36:07

    COPELANDYeah.

  • 11:36:07

    REHMBut aren't you also beginning something else tomorrow?

  • 11:36:13

    COPELANDYes. I'm here now. We open American Ballet Theatre at the Kennedy Center tomorrow, Tuesday, and we are performing through Sunday. We will be dancing "Cinderella." I will be making my debut as the cowgirl in the piece, "Rodeo." We will be dancing theme in variations and pillar of fire. So I'm here with ABT and I will be back in a couple of weeks to dance with the Washington Ballet.

  • 11:36:45

    REHMHow marvelous. This book, the "Firebird," I am so impressed. Who did the illustrations?

  • 11:36:56

    COPELANDThe incredible Christopher Myers. We have found a lot of similarities with each other. It was his idea. He wanted to work with me. And I thought, "How does he know who I am?" And, you know, "Why do you want to work with me?" That's how the idea came about was through Chris.

  • 11:37:16

    REHMWell, it's just marvelous.

  • 11:37:18

    COPELANDHe's an incredible, incredible artist who understands my mission.

  • 11:37:23

    REHMAnd the subtitle is, "Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird." Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd don't forget, if you'd like to see this interview, you can go to drshow.org and click on "watch live." The lovely Misty Copeland is with me and she's going to be dancing in Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center in just two weeks. We all hope to see you there, Misty. Here's an email from Sean in Michigan, who says, we're an African American family. My two-year-old, like her mother, loves dance. My wife wants to get her into ballet lessons, but I'm very cautious about doing so.

  • 11:40:54

    REHMAs a parent, I want to protect her from any additional hardship that may face her as a black person in an environment where she will clearly be an other. Any advice for me as a parent?

  • 11:41:15

    COPELANDYes. Well, two is very young. And I think at that point, you know, it's about definitely her feeling comfortable. I'd say between the ages of three and seven are definitely a great time to get your child started on ballet, if that's something that they want to do. I would recommend going to abt.org and doing some research about Project Pleat, which is a diversity initiative, which has been started, along with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. You know, it's such a big part of helping the ballet world to grow with educating people.

  • 11:41:54

    COPELANDThat it's not just about diversifying the dancers on the stage, but the teachers as well. I think it's important for the children to be able to see themselves through their teachers, as well. And for those teachers to know how to address certain issues, or to make sure that race is not something that becomes an issue in an environment like that. And that's so much a part of what I'm trying to get people to understand.

  • 11:42:21

    REHMAt some point in your life, will you teach?

  • 11:42:27

    COPELANDI teach occasionally when I have time, which is not a lot. I don't have a lot of spare time. Free time. I don't know if I want to teach in the future. I'm still trying to figure all of that out. I do enjoy coaching and it's a little bit different than teaching. It's taking more developed dancers and giving them those nuances that make them look like a professional and less like a student. That's more interesting to me, but I know I'll stay a part of the ballet world in some way. Just not sure if it will be teaching.

  • 11:43:01

    REHMAt one point, when you were appearing, or about to appear in Firebird, you realized you had broken bones.

  • 11:43:17

    COPELANDYeah. It was again, as I was saying earlier, the opportunity for me to be dancing, my first principal, you know, the lead role in a classical ballet at 29 years old, I understood that this was my moment to prove that I was capable so that more roles could come. I started to feel pain in my left shin, early on in the process of having Firebird created on me by Alexi Rotlonski. And I kind of pushed it aside and just thought, I have to get through these performances, because it means so much for the African American community and so much for my future.

  • 11:44:00

    COPELANDAnd what I want, as a dancer. So, after performing three performances, two of them were in California, and one of them was at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, I couldn't dance anymore. I was in so much pain. And I found out I had six stress fractures in my tibia. And three of them were called treaded black line fractures. And they were almost full breaks through the bone. But I did get through three performances. And I showed, I think, the ballet audience, and my artistic director, that I was capable of reaching that point and being given more roles to do to be a principle dancer and to do principal roles.

  • 11:44:48

    REHMHow long did it take to heal?

  • 11:44:52

    COPELANDI was out for a year. I spent two or three months just trying to get it to heal on its own, without doing, without dancing at all. When we realized the severity of the fractures and that it wasn't going to heal completely on its own, I went to several doctors and ended up having a plate screwed in to my tibia. So, from there, it took me, after the surgery, it took me about seven months before I was onstage again. So, overall, it was close to a year that I was out.

  • 11:45:26

    REHMHow does that feel?

  • 11:45:29

    COPELANDThe plate is still in there. It will stay in there forever. I'm prone to stress fractures, because of the way my legs are shaped. They're very hyperextended, so it puts a lot of pressure right there in the middle of my shins. This plate will protect it so that it doesn't happen anymore.

  • 11:45:46

    REHMIs there any discomfort as you dance?

  • 11:45:50

    COPELANDYes. I still, it's been almost three years now and I still, I'm in a lot of pain. It's a process that dancers deal with pain all the time. And pain that most human beings can't even imagine having to deal with on a daily basis, so it's nothing new.

  • 11:46:08

    REHMBut it's worth it?

  • 11:46:10

    COPELANDIt's something that gets better and better in time. I think that it will completely go away, but I still do feel a lot of pain.

  • 11:46:21

    REHMDo you, is there any doubt in your mind when you consider the kind of pain you've experienced, the kind of damage to your body that has been done, is there any doubt in your mind but that you want to continue dancing as long as you can.

  • 11:46:49

    COPELANDDancers are some of the strongest people I know. Mentally, emotionally and physically. And pain is definitely not going to stop me. I want to dance for as long as I can and look the way I want to look. Or until I'm thrown off the stage.

  • 11:47:11

    REHMWhat is the normal age at which ballet dancers feel they have to get off?

  • 11:47:21

    COPELANDIt depends, I think, on the person, but also on what rank you are. So, if you are in the Court of Ballet, which is the largest body of dancers on the stage that frame the soloists and the principals, they probably have the shortest career, because they do the most dancing. They are on almost every night. I was in the Court of Ballet for seven years, and it is so extremely difficult to do what those girls do. So, I would say early to mid 30s is the -- as long as a Court of Ballet dancer would dance.

  • 11:47:52

    COPELANDAs a soloist, I would say that you're not on as much, but the roles are even more physically demanding. I would say maybe between 35 and 38. And as a principal dancer, it varies. We have dancers that dance up until 45 years old. But a lot of the time, they're on maybe one show a week when we're in season. So, they definitely, physically, it's the least demanding in terms of just doing a lot of repetitive work. But to do a principal role, it's the craziest thing I've ever experienced. It takes so much out of you in every way.

  • 11:48:34

    REHMYou must be exhausted after each performance.

  • 11:48:39

    COPELANDYeah.

  • 11:48:40

    REHMTotally exhausted. How much do you allow yourself to eat?

  • 11:48:47

    COPELANDI love food, so it's not something that I'm consciously, you know, like, oh, I'm only going to eat this much, or I have to eat this much to get through the day. I eat when I'm hungry. I tend to not eat big meals before I perform. And usually, I will do that after a performance.

  • 11:49:04

    REHMSure.

  • 11:49:05

    COPELANDBut I usually am snacking a lot throughout the day. Lots of nuts and dried fruit and salad and sushi, stuff like that. And then the heavier things afterwards.

  • 11:49:15

    REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones and take some calls. 800-433-8850. To, let's see, Jane is Durham, New Hampshire. You're on the air.

  • 11:49:35

    JANEGood morning. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a teacher of English as a second language, and I was listening to you, Miss Copeland, talk about a teacher you had, and it just really struck a chord with me. I have a student who is from a disadvantaged background, and doesn't feel, I don't think, I can't really read her, totally comfortable in class. But she's such a good writer. I teach academic writing skills. And so, I said to her, do you realize how smart you are?

  • 11:50:12

    JANEDo you realize how good a writer you are? And she didn't really answer, and I said, you know, I hope you, I hope you stay in school for a really long time and you do something great with your life. And again, she just looks down and so, then I was thinking, maybe I was, it was too strong, was overbearing. So, I don't know. I'm just asking you as a, as, from the student's perspective, what is received and what is received as encouragement and what is received as whoa, get off, get away from me?

  • 11:50:50

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:50:50

    COPELANDYeah.

  • 11:50:51

    REHMWhat a good question.

  • 11:50:52

    COPELANDYeah, it is. I think it's something that I'm even still learning, because I do mentor kids. That you really want them to feel encouraged, but supported at the same time. And for me, it took me a while to warm up to the idea of, you know, you can hear all day long, oh, you're so good, but if it doesn't seem like a reality or a possibility, it's hard for them to really accept that. I think maybe showing this student example of someone who's similar to them, or maybe who's had a similar background or path. Someone who looks like them, who's a writer.

  • 11:51:33

    COPELANDWho's successful. Just letting them know what a realistic future may be. I think it may be easier for them to feel comfortable and accepting and hearing that they're good at something or that it's possible.

  • 11:51:46

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Andrea in West Palm Beach, Florida. Hi Andrea.

  • 11:51:55

    ANDREAHi Diane. Hi Miss Copeland. How are you.

  • 11:51:57

    COPELANDGood.

  • 11:51:57

    REHMGood.

  • 11:51:58

    ANDREAThank you for taking my call. I'm a big fan of the show.

  • 11:52:02

    REHMGood.

  • 11:52:02

    ANDREAI had a question. My family is very entrenched in the ballet world. My little sister was a ballerina, you know, ever since she came out of my mother's body. And went on to dance professionally. And over time, has developed bulimia, and became incredibly abusive of her body in order to maintain a certain weight. She now has a daughter of her own who is also interested in ballet. And she is channeling her in the same way that my parents channeled my sister.

  • 11:52:46

    ANDREAAnd I was just wondering, do you think that is healthy? I know that eating disorders are prevalent in many, many different areas, but for some reason, I just have this perception that it's incredibly vicious in the ballet world.

  • 11:53:05

    REHMAnd before you respond, just let me say, you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Misty.

  • 11:53:15

    COPELANDYou know, I don't think it runs as rapid as most people think, that eating disorders do. I think the ballet's going through a changing process right now. You know, before the George Ballenshine era and before New York City ballet was created, dance, ballet dancers, female ballerinas, they looked like women. And after George Ballenshine kind of coined this idea of what a ballerina was, and it was very similar to what supermodels were in those days, in the 60s and the 70s, very, very thin.

  • 11:53:53

    COPELANDAnd that kind of became the new ideal of what a ballerina is. I have to say that even looking around me, at American Ballet Theater, the body type is not that. And it's definitely changing with the choreography that we do and how athletic it is, you know, we have to have muscle, we have to have strength to be able to do what we do. You know, so much of what I practice and preach is a healthy body image. And it's possible to be a part of the ballet world if you know how to take care of your body. There are so many things to, you know, nutrition is such a huge part of it, and it took me so long to understand that.

  • 11:54:29

    COPELANDThat's half the battle is what you're putting into your body. No matter what you decide to do, as a career.

  • 11:54:36

    REHMMisty, did you ever see yourself or feel yourself to be a victim?

  • 11:54:45

    COPELANDOh, no. Absolutely not.

  • 11:54:47

    REHMNever.

  • 11:54:48

    COPELANDNo, I have never thought of myself in that way. It's just been a part of my experience. Everything that has happened in my life has made me into the person that I am. And I try my best to look at all those experiences as opportunities to learn, to understand people around me, to understand myself.

  • 11:55:13

    REHMAnd how will you continue in your efforts to engage more young African Americans in the world of ballet?

  • 11:55:26

    COPELANDWell, the platform that I have, you know, even just being on this show, it's incredible as a ballet dancer when most, most ballet dancers aren't given an opportunity to have a voice. Most don't want to have a voice, and that's why we dance. But to have the platform that I have to reach so many people who are not necessarily interested or have had the exposure to ballet, I want to use every opportunity I have to educate people, to show those kids that can see themselves through me that this is a possibility for you to be a part of.

  • 11:56:00

    COPELANDAnd not to be afraid that it's not something that's attainable. I just want to continue to set a good example.

  • 11:56:08

    REHMAnd not to be afraid because there isn't the access to that formal school of ballet when I think of you in that Boys and Girls gym.

  • 11:56:25

    COPELANDYeah.

  • 11:56:26

    REHMThat really must have been something.

  • 11:56:29

    COPELANDYeah. I think it's important for, especially the next generation of kids to come, to know that the ballet world is open to everyone. Or it should be, and I think that's kind of the path of where it's going right now. Because through diversity initiatives like Project Pleat, you can get access to top notch training and not feel like it's not something you can be a part of.

  • 11:56:54

    REHMMisty Copeland. She's a soloist for American Ballet Theater. She's the author of a memoir titled, "Life In Motion" and the children's book, "Firebird." In two weeks, she joins the Washington Ballet here in D.C. for an historic production of Swan Lake. A joy to speak with you.

  • 11:57:24

    COPELANDThank you so much.

  • 11:57:25

    REHMCongratulations.

  • 11:57:26

    COPELANDThank you.

  • 11:57:27

    REHMThanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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