Every now a then a dream comes true that is so unlikely, so wide sweeping, that even skeptics start to believe in miracles. Such a moment happened on June 30 when San Pedro ballerina Misty Copelend became the first black woman promoted to principal ballerina by the American Ballet Theatre. She received rave reviews for dancing Swan Lake at the prestigious theatre in New York. The company has been in existence for 75 years.
“Something that my mother instilled in me, as a biracial woman herself, and me being biracial, was that the world was going to view me as a black woman, no matter what I decided to do,” Copeland said at the TIME 100 gala in April. “I had no idea that that was going to be my truth at some point in my life, when I moved to New York City at 17 years old and joined American Ballet Theatre and realized I was the only African-American woman in a company of 80 dancers.”
Copeland has been with the company for 14 years and danced as a soloist for eight, and is one of the most widely visible ballerinas dancing today.
The 32 year-old super star embodies all the qualities young girls dream of: beauty, intelligence, grace, perseverance and talent that takes your breath away She is a shining example of what it means to live your dreams, and some would say, your fantasy. But her life has been no fairy tale.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised in San Pedro, California, Copeland began her ballet studies at 13, a late start for a dancer of her caliber. The fourth of six children, Copeland lived in poverty. At the time she was discovered, she was living with her family in a Gardena motel. Her mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, married four times, and Copeland did not see her biological father for 20 years.
In a scenario similar to that of African American gymnast and Olympic gold medal winner Gabby Douglas, Copeland lived with white trainers. Blown away by her amazing talent, ballet teachers Cynthia and Patrick Bradley agreed to home-school Copeland and keep her 5 days a week to allow more time for training. She went home to her mother on the weekends. In 1998, DelaCerna and the Bradley’s became embroiled in a bitter custody battle. The Bradleys filed emancipation papers on Copeland’s behalf. DelaCerna filed a restraining order against the Bradleys, but it did not have proper legal basis, since there had been no stalking and no harassment Copeland eventually ended up staying with her mother, and despite all the turmoil, maintained a 3.8 grade point average at San Pedro High School.
“The dismissal of the emancipation petition accomplished Sylvia's main goal of keeping the family bonds intact and strong, without interference by third parties.... Another concern of Sylvia in filing a request for restraining orders was that she did not believe it was in Misty's best interest to have continuing contact with the Bradleys. In the sworn declarations filed by the Bradleys in response to the restraining order they said that "we have not and will never do anything to interfere with Misty's relationship with her mother.... Since Sylvia has accomplished all of the goals that she intended to achieve when she filed her papers with the court we have chosen not to proceed to seek an injunction in this matter," said attorney Gloria Allred.
Like other aspects of Copeland’s life, the promotion to lead dancer transcends personal achievements. An advocate for diversity in ballet, Copeland said, “I never saw a ballerina who looked like me before,” noting that black ballerinas like Raven Wilkinson have mentored her and inspired her to “try and open up the doors for the history of African-American ballerinas that I feel is just not told.”
“And I’m here to be a vessel for all these brown ballerinas who have come before me,” she said.
Her rise from modest beginnings to ballet crossover star has been the subject of numerous magazine articles, TV segments, a "60 Minutes" episode and the forthcoming documentary "A Ballerina's Tale." The film debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Copeland was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2015 and was featured on one of five covers for the issue. Olympic gold medal gymnast Nadia Comaneci wrote in Time that Copeland's story was one "of someone who followed her dreams and refused to give up."
"In that way, she is a model for all young girls," Comaneci wrote. "It doesn't matter where you're from. If you have the passion like Misty, you can be the best at what you do."
Copeland was awarded the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Arts in 2008. The fellowship funds dancer studies with teachers outside of the American Ballet Theatre.
She released two books in 2014. The first was the memoir Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. The second was a picture book aimed at young children titled Firebird.