LOS ANGELES – Hundreds of excited young fans streamed into the Grand Arts High School Concert Hall recently to spend an afternoon with famed American Ballet Theatre (ABT) Prima Ballerina Misty Copeland and longtime dance and choreography icon Debbie Allen.
Copeland, the first African American woman to be a principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history, sat down with the award-winning director, actress and dancer to discuss her rise to the top of ballet and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Copeland told transfixed audience members that she’s endured many trials in her quest to excel in dance, but it was her passion for ballet that ultimately helped her overcome her challenges and soar to the top of her field.
“The one constant that I had during that process was ballet,” said Copeland. “That’s something that – to this day – it’s the one thing that keeps me grounded and keeps me sane and allows me to be in this safe environment where I can be free and express myself.”
Allen asked Copeland about a pivotal decision in her dance career which ultimately led to her being promoted to the highest position in classical dance. At age 29, after spending six years as a background dancer and eight years as a soloist, Copeland finally got the opportunity to perform as the principal dancer in Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”
“I was ready. I knew this was my moment to prove that I was capable – to prove that I had all that it takes to carry a ballet,” said Copeland, now 32.
While performing in that role, however, Copeland discovered the pain she’d been experiencing was caused by six mid-tibia stress fractures – injuries that could have ended her career.
“I danced through as much as I could to be able to do the Firebird at least twice to prove that I could do it, then I had to pull out of the season,” she said. “I almost broke my leg in two.”
She prevailed, however, and within three years would become arguably the most prominent ballet dancer in black America.
Following Allen’s interview, dozens of Copeland admirers lined up to ask a wide range of questions. One young woman wanted to know how Copeland handled stumbling, both on stage and off. Another devotee inquired, “When you have children, what will you name them?”
Ten-year old Grace McDaniel stood patiently in line, waiting to ask Copeland a question that’s been on her mind ever since she read Copeland’s book, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina” and saw the documentary on Copeland, “A Ballerina’s Tale.”
During her research, the Beverly Vista Elementary School fifth grader had become fascinated with a tug-of-war between Copeland’s mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, and her dance teacher, Cynthia Bradley. And she wanted further insight on the conflict.
“When Cynthia Bradley and your Mom were going through this struggle fighting over you, what was it like being in the middle of it?” asked McDaniel, who also wrote a biography on Copeland for a school project. “I mean, was there any pain and struggles that you were going through? Dance is your passion, what was it like going through those two different worlds?”
Copeland talked in detail about the difficulties she faced during that time. “It was a very hard and scary situation for a 15-year-old to be caught in the middle of.” Copeland said. But again, she said, dance kept her sane and got her through.
At the end of the event, McDaniel said she was satisfied to finally have her question answered. “I love how she fought through all the pain and how she explained, ‘Dancers go through this. It’s not abnormal. It’s what we do.’ ”