There’s a lot of pressure to be the only one. Misty Copeland is the first Black woman to be promoted to principal dancer at an international ballet company. Ever. For those unfamiliar with the dance world, the most popular principal dancer at The American Ballet Theatre seems like a relatively new phenomenon. She seemed to burst out of nowhere in her Diet Dr. Pepper commercial, which felt like her first “I’m here, world” moment. She then became #bodygoals, #wifegoals, and #blackgirlmagic as an official athlete for Under Armour.
But Misty’s unlikely story and her years of relentless hard work and perfectionism prove that it takes years to become an “overnight sensation.” In her new film, A Ballerina’s Tale, viewers see that Misty’s budding fame is 20 years in the making, with isolation, insecurity, and insurmountable injury threatening to take it all away from her with one wrong leap. Directed by Nelson George, the film accurately tells the tale of a ballerina overcoming extraordinary odds, fueled by the dreams of brown women and young girls watching her inspiring rise.
At the start of the film, it’s clear that Misty is a normal girl, traveling in the city just as any young woman making it in New York City would be, rushing to work and trying to make her dreams come true. She used to travel around the city listening to *NSYNC and Justin Timberlake when she first moved from San Pedro, Calif. Any woman under the age of 35 living in New York City could totally relate. She’d take the subway to Brooklyn with her best friend to go to Red Lobster, and was excited when the seafood chain opened a location in Times Square—just like the rest of us.
A Ballerina’s Tale pulls no punches about the blood and grit behind the perfect visions we see dancing effortlessly at The Met, and the lack of diversity that’s plagued the ballet world since its inception. Earlier gatekeepers of the art form felt people of color and those with muscular bodies would be a distraction. Robyn Gardenhire, Artistic Director of the City Ballet of Los Angeles, says that in early years, Black ballerinas were cast in sexual roles instead of delicate ones like Giselle, the Swan Lake lead. Actress and former dancer Victoria Rowell, who danced at the American Ballet Theatre said: “[Choreographer George Balanchine believed] the skin of a dancer should be as pale as that of a freshly peeled apple. I’m the shade of a chestnut in summertime. We have to figure this out.” Misty finally brought the shade of chestnut to ballet in a way that will forever change it, and ushered in a new era of young dancers of color to follow in her footsteps.
But it’s important to note that the new era is still in its very early stages. Since Misty was the only Black dancer out of 80 in the company when she first joined the American Ballet Theatre, she felt alone with the weight of body insecurities on her shoulders. She felt the need to slim down once her body started changing. Misty was no longer the wiry young girl with the perfect dancer figure who didn’t have to care much about what she ate. She became a woman with curves and a bust. Being alone in a new city with no one to relate led to overeating. She would eat a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts (and even told the donut shop that she was a corporation so Krispy Kreme would deliver to her at home) a night because she felt bad about herself. Even though “she was everybody’s Misty,” she felt completely isolated.
The tide turned when Misty was introduced to African-American ballerinas before her, who could share their experiences, and she started to dance with a greater purpose in mind: for all the little brown girls. In the film’s sweetest moment, former African-American ballerina Raven Wilkinson and Misty motioned through the choreography of a solo they both performed together. As the two discussed issues of race, Wilkinson shared that she felt in her time it wasn’t nice to talk about, and that she would be judged more harshly if she did. But Misty, afforded the opportunity to be a dancer in a new multicultural age, said she felt it’s important to confront the issues so change can come. And in that way, she’s become a champion for diversity in all aspects of the arts. She’s a constant reminder that she should not, in fact, be the only one.
The whirlwind of success that Misty has experienced in the last few years is awe-inspiring: she’s released a memoir and a children’s book, is the face of Under Armour and is even working on a TV pilot. And perhaps one of her proudest moments was performing The Firebird at the Met, while some of Hollywood’s elite African-American entertainers watched the first Black ballerina cast as the lead. Knowing that the moment meant so much to so many, Misty danced through immense pain from fractures in her shin. She endured a surgery that could have been career-ending, only to return and become the first Black principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre’s history.
A Ballerina’s Tale ends with Misty walking alone on a city street, eventually met with a kiss from her boyfriend. She’s not so alone anymore: she’s got the entire world on her side.
A Ballerina’s Tale is playing in select theaters now.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty