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American Ballet Theatre Soloist Misty Copeland

Shaping Her Own Career and Future

By Stephanie Wolf

When considering the future of dance, conversation often focuses on new dance companies and how the art form is progressing choreographically. These topics are appropriate, but one significant factor is sometimes overlooked … the evolution of the dancer’s position within the profession. More than ever, dancers are branching out and going to lengths to represent themselves as individuals rather than just a member of their affiliated company; thus, strengthening their voices and public presence. American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland is one of several American dancers acknowledging the potential in embracing her own individuality and the ‘business’ side of dance to further not only her own career, but the art form as well.

Misty began dancing at 13, an unconventionally late age for a female to start ballet, but she took to the physical demands quickly. It wasn’t long before teachers noted her raw talent and work ethic and encouraged her to pursue ballet professionally. After she attended the American Ballet Theatre summer intensive and had a stint in the Studio Company, Kevin McKenzie invited Misty to join the corps de ballet in 2001. Six years later, he promoted her to the rank of Soloist  – making her ABT’s third African American Soloist ever, and the first in over two decades.

Misty Copelan. Photo Copyright Jade Young

As her career progressed, Misty felt compelled to share her unique story with others and recruited a manager to help in this pursuit. She did not make the decision lightly, but felt she had the ability to connect with individuals outside of the dance world and bring more public awareness to ballet, specifically African Americans in ballet. Currently, Misty works diligently on both improving her pirouettes and furthering her mission. She admits, “being a brand or a spokesperson of dance is a lot of work and takes diving into the unknown, unfamiliar world of the public as a voice rather than an image.” The determined ballerina, though, does not shy away from this extra ‘work,’ and is interested in more than just self-promotion.

Misty uses new media tools, such as her website, Twitter, and Facebook, to “connect our rare art form to the rest of the world.” Her ultimate goal is to inspire people to attend live dance and hopes the ease and accessibility of new media will help accomplish this. She encourages others in the dance community to tab into these digital trends.

While Misty is an advocate of ‘branding’ in the professional dance world, she also understands how intimidating this business outlook can be for dancers, particularly those in ballet. Dancers “are taught from a very young age to blend with others to prepare … to be part of the corps.” Individuality is not part of a young dancer’s curriculum. Additionally, there is an inherent “fear of being reprimanded … or feeling like [having a voice] is disrespecting the art and company.” Personally, Misty believes the pros of standing on her own two feet and placing herself in a position of public scrutiny outweigh the cons.

Another hot topic Misty speaks candidly on is the meshing of pop culture and dance. With the popularity of television shows such as Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance rising and ballet’s recent Hollywood spotlight in Black Swan, ballet is gaining more mainstream interest. Not all dancers see the integration positively, but there are many advantages to this exposure. “Just putting the image of dance in the average person’s head … is wonderful,” says Misty.

Photo Copyright Erin Baiano

Misty contributed to this amalgamation when she danced with pop icon Prince. “The opportunity for a classical dancer to appear in a music video and at Madison Square Garden is extremely rare,” she said. Initially, she had concerns about mixing classical ballet and rock music, but her heart told her to accept it, and now Misty is grateful for the opportunity. “My experience collaborating with Prince has been an eye opener, a growth period as an artist.”

While she continues to develop her artistry, Misty also focuses on her entrepreneurial side. About 10 years ago, while dealing with her body changing and “becoming an adult,” Misty noticed that most dancewear lines did not cater to the aesthetics of a “curvy figure.” Realizing there was a demand for this type of dancewear, Misty began conversations with a long-time friend and a designer about creating a line of leotards designed with “support for movement” to suit all physiques. Currently, Misty and her team are still fleshing out the details and a launch date for M By Misty. But she thinks it’s perfect timing to reinvent the leotard, as the dance world begins to “open and broaden” the specifics of what constitutes an ideal body type for dance.

Eloquent in speech and poised in manner, Misty is so much more than another ballerina. Her business wits and intuition are going to take her career to unimaginable heights, making her a role model for any individual with dreams and ambitions. “My message has always been that it’s ok to be different, an individual, healthy, and confident.”

Top photo by Erin Baiano. Subject to Copyright.

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