Misty Copeland, 34, is a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, which begins its fall season in New York on Oct. 18. She is the author of “Ballerina Body” (Grand Central). She spoke with Marc Myers.
I was shy and introverted as a child. Growing up, I moved a few times with my family and I had several stepfathers, so these changes I’m sure took a toll. Fortunately, music offered me stability and protection, and dance became an escape, helping me understand why I was special.
I was born in Kansas City, Mo. My parents divorced when I was 2, and I didn’t see my father again until I was 22. After they separated, my three siblings and I moved with my mother to Bellflower, Calif., where she married her new husband, Harold.
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The first home I remember clearly was the one in San Pedro, Calif. We moved there when I was 7. It was a one-story, white-and-blue house that sat on a hill.
The house was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. We had a view of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island on a clear day. It was perfect and seemed very pure.
I spent most of my free time with my siblings. My oldest brother, Doug, was always listening to the latest music. I remember sitting on the top bunk with him listening to New Edition. He shared a room with our brother, Chris.
My brothers loved watching the World Wrestling Federation on TV and would try the latest moves on me in our backyard. I didn’t mind. I loved being physical.
I shared a room with my oldest sister, Erica, and my younger sister, Lindsey. Erica had the day bed, and Lindsey and I shared the bunk beds. To have my own bed for the first time was a thrill.
I’ve always been a perfectionist, so everything had to be just so in our room. I think this was a result of me not wanting to rock the boat. Keeping things orderly at home meant no one would get upset, and life would remain calm and consistent.
The best part about our room is that it opened onto our back lawn. We had a glass door that let in lots of light. Outside, I created dances to music, mostly by Mariah Carey.
My mother was an early influence. She had studied dance and had been a Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader. From a young age, I remember her dancing around the house and teaching me routines. I couldn’t wait to come home from school and practice with my mother in the living room.
School was difficult. I never felt good about anything. I was constantly nervous that I’d do something wrong. That’s why movement and music were so freeing for me.
My love of dance began when I was 7, in 1989. I watched “Nadia,”about the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci. The film deeply affected me. The floor exercises were the closest thing to ballet I’d ever seen. I had no idea what it took to become a top athlete and artist. I’d try to do what the gymnasts were doing as they exercised. Our front yard became my training space.
When I was 12, I met the middle school’s drill-team coach, Elizabeth Cantine. I remember her being amazed that I picked up movement so easily. The team was used to doing hip-hop, jazz and more lyrical movements, but Elizabeth had added ballet to the mix. Everyone had to work at it, but ballet seemed to come naturally to me.
‘School was difficult. I never felt good about anything. I was constantly nervous that I’d do something wrong. That’s why movement and music were so freeing for me.’
Elizabeth was the first person to teach me the vocabulary of ballet and told me I had a special gift.
By the early 1990s, home life was becoming stressful for me. My mother was going through the end of a marriage and adjusting to life as a single mom with six kids.
In 1996, Elizabeth introduced me to Cynthia Bradley, who taught a local ballet class at her dance studio. I danced five hours a day there. She showed me the potential of a future in ballet. No one had ever prepared me for that.
Eventually I went to live with Cynthia and her family. Moving in with the Bradleys gave me stability so I could focus on dance.
At 15, I won a national ballet competition, and in 1998 I went away for the summer on full scholarship to train with the San Francisco Ballet School. In 2000, right after high school, I was invited to join American Ballet Theatre. It was a dream come true.
Today, my husband, Olu, and I live on New York’s Upper West Side in a condo. We moved in seven years ago and from our top-level floor, we have great views from every room.
I spend most of my time in the living room. Every morning I do my exercises and physical therapy on the floor in the early light.
In 2004, I met my father, Doug Sr., for the first time in Wisconsin, where he lives now. My older brother, Doug Jr., wanted to go and insisted I come along. It was crazy. There in front of me was a man who had my face. It felt right. Now my father comes to Chicago whenever I’m performing there. He’s so proud of me.