Misty Copeland, 40, is a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre and the author of the new book “The Wind at My Back,” which shares the story of Copeland’s mentor, Raven Wilkinson, and her journey to be a Black ballerina in the 1950s and ’60s. Copeland lives in New York City with her husband and son.
When did you first encounter ballet?
It would be when I was 2 years old and was given a tutu for Halloween. I think I was a ballerina for three years in a row. I had never seen ballet. I’d never heard classical music. But my mom loved to tell that story that I was obsessed with being a ballerina even though I didn’t officially know what it was until I was 13 years old. And it was at my Boys & Girls Club on a basketball court. It was through a program that was being given to local students. And I didn’t initially like it. It was so outside of what I had been exposed to. I grew up listening to R&B and soul, and hearing classical music was a bit of a shock. And dancing in such a structured way was as well. But I went into an actual ballet studio; I was given a scholarship to join the local ballet school. And once I was in a ballet studio and in front of a mirror and wearing the proper attire, it all just clicked. The music made sense in my body. And the technique of classical dance was organic and natural. I don’t think a lot of people would use those words to describe the ballet technique, which can often feel so foreign on people’s bodies. It all just kind of made sense to me.
In your book, you say that ballet is a calling.
I really think that it calls people to be a part of it. To be a part of such a disciplined art form, it’s an incredible thing to experience, but I don’t think that it’s something that everyone fits into. We start so young, and it’s hard to have a social life and do anything outside of being in the studio. I do think that it takes a special person to give of their bodies, to sacrifice.
You’ve talked about being the only African American. You felt compelled to continue, even though you were often the only one?
That’s part of the calling part. There was something pulling me towards this art form that was stronger than the lack of representation that I saw. Classical ballet gave me something that I wasn’t getting in my home life — coming from underprivileged communities and growing up in a single-parent home and not having a lot of money, and not often having a place to sleep. It gave me a sense of security and structure. And that, to me, was more important and enriched my life so much, that being the only one in a room wasn’t going to stop me and wasn’t going to hold me back. At least in the beginning. That’s how I felt — it wasn’t something that was going to deter me.
When did you learn about Raven Wilkinson?
I was a professional dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. It’s such a shame that I was in the midst of my professional career before I found out who Raven Wilkinson was. It was through a documentary that I saw on the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which is the first professional company that she danced for. And it was just stunning to be watching this film, with no expectation or knowledge that there was a Black woman in this company in the 1950s. I was just watching it as, you know, a bunhead [laughs], as a dancer who wanted to know more about the history of ballet and the history of this company, which was the first American ballet company that succeeded and that was touring in America. I was stunned to see Raven come onto the screen. And I say this often, but my life changed. My career changed. I found purpose in such a rich way that I didn’t have before. Just by seeing her on that screen. It’s given me a different understanding of how I fit in.
I got to a point in my professional career being the only Black woman at the ABT for over 10 years, where I felt like: Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing? Does this make sense? Am I really moving the needle in any way? And connecting the history of Black people in America and how we came into so many different art forms and into classical ballet has connected me to my history and to ballet history in a very different and more positive way.
And then meeting her in person for the first time it, it was overwhelming, but it was this safe feeling, like meeting a family member that I’d never met. To connect with someone who looked like me was really moving. It was the sense of coming home.
The book gives insight into the struggles of Raven Wilkinson’s career — being forced out of the South and later having to leave the country to perform. It’s a story of unrealized potential. But I didn’t sense any bitterness or negativity, just the joy that Raven had about the art.
That is Raven in a nutshell. There was never any bitterness or anger towards the art form. When you think about the technique, the core of what ballet is, it’s not racist, it’s not exclusive. It’s the people associated with it. It’s the gatekeepers. And Raven just had such a deep, deep love of the craft and of the art form. And I think that’s what kept her connected to it in spite of all of that she experienced — because of ballet.
And both you and Raven were, at some point, encouraged to pursue a dance form more connected to your background?
Yes. That happened very blatantly to her. In my experience, in a classical ballet company, we do a lot of modern contemporary works. And a lot of Black dancers tend to be pushed into that lane. And that happened to me throughout the beginning of my career. Probably not until I did “The Firebird” in 2012 — that was the first time in my career that I was given an opportunity to be seen in a leading role on a classical work. For the first, I don’t know, 12 years of my career, I was pushed into doing the more contemporary works that aren’t so focused on the ballet technique. That happens to a lot of Black and Brown dancers.
Raven was the first person who told you that you could be a Swan. What was the significance of that?
Swan Queen [in the ballet “Swan Lake”] is the ultimate classical role for a ballerina. The technique of the Swan Queen is not something that you just organically learn. You have to almost train separately to emulate the arms to look like wings. All these things. Raven saw that potential in me when I performed the role of the Firebird, which is a bird, it’s a creature, an ethereal character, and it just meant so much for her to see the spirit of what I could be as the Swan Queen. Being a Black woman, you are never told that someone sees you as the Swan Queen. So it was the stamp of approval from, you know, the queen.
I was struck by a passage of the book that describes the connection between the two of you. After seeing the two of you together, a friend described the way she looked at you like “you were running some last miles in a marathon she started a long time ago.”
And it’s, you know, it’s Raven, but it’s so many people before Raven. It’s so many of Raven’s peers in that time, these Black women who started this race. And the fact that I have had the opportunity to kind of pick up where she left off and go where she wanted to go or where she should have is exactly what my experience has been. And it’s been so important for me to show the world that that’s what happened. I didn’t just — poof — appear out of thin air. It’s been generations and generations of these women who started this race for me and for other Black dancers of my generation.
I’m sure you’ve thought about what you mean for young Black and Brown ballerinas?
I feel like it’s something that I’ve been so conscious of — that there are Black and Brown girls and boys who are looking at me. I feel comfortable in this position because I know that it’s part of the work that I have to do. Because it’s so rare to be in a position like this, in a field like this, as a Black person, and specifically as a Black woman.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Robin Rose Parker is a writer in Maryland. For a longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.