Ballerina Misty Copeland may have become a household name last year when she was featured in Under Armour’s viral “I Will What I Want” campaign and published her best-selling memoir, but her journey to the top was far from easy.
She shyly started plié-ing and grand jeté-ing at the age of 13 (which is ancient in the world of ballet, by the way) while spending afternoons at the Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, California.
Copeland’s family couldn’t afford luxuries like dance lessons, and she was told she had the wrong body for ballet. But that rejection sparked something in her. She worked harder, pushing past the cutting criticisms and adversity for years, and ultimately became the first African American soloist for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in more than 20 years. Right now, she’s killing it with everything she does.
You name it, and Copeland’s got it on her resumé: Aside from dancing in the ABT, Copeland’s tell-all book, Life in Motion came out last year and Hollywood—and the fitness community—is taking note of her inspiring and powerful appeal. There’s a big screen movie in the works about her life, a documentary about her called A Ballerina’s Tale set for release this year, and a TV show about her in development. She also served as a judge to aspiring dancers on So You Think You Can Dance.
We caught up with Copeland to get her advice on how, in face of serious criticism, she learned to love her body, pursue her goals, and never give up:
1. What’s your biggest piece of advice to someone who’s trying to overcome the odds, like you did? You have to have belief in yourself first and foremost. Surround yourself with people who are going to remind you of your value in those moments of self doubt and show you what you can’t see. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and open. Don’t be afraid to say, “Push me, because I’m capable.”
2. That’s great advice. How did you deal with the body shaming that sometimes came with being a ballerina? I went through a very lonely period, but I eventually realized that I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the first to ever experience this. I had to ask myself, “How do I move forward?” I had to say to myself, “How do I become my best self in a healthy way?” I realized that my body isn’t this shape because I’m this ethnicity or age. I can be smart and teach my body and mind to be what it needs to be to get the job done.
I think that especially the ballet world, we attach certain races to certain body types. With the knowledge we have of health, nutrition, and cross training in the 21st century, we can make our bodies into whatever we want them to be. Put in the work and you will see honest results.
3. I loved your appearance in the Under Armour campaign. What chord do you think it struck with women? That story of being told “No,” and persevering is universal. But it really touched a chord with women and body image. It’s showing my very athletic body and facing the fact that this is me and I’m at my best and I’m a ballerina even though I’ve been told I couldn’t be.
It’s showing that these Under Armour athletes are not perfect cookie-cutter images of success. Each of us has a story that’s relatable. Yes, we’ve reached incredible success but, we’ve all persevered against some odds and have fought and worked hard for it.
4. I get goosebumps every time I watch it. You started training when you were 13 and started dancing en pointe within a matter of months. How did you keep yourself motivated and not get discouraged? I had an incredible support system in the beginning stages of my training. I knew that I had a lot to learn and I wasn’t afraid of that. I loved the process, so I rarely felt discouraged about my late start. And that’s what’s so special about my experience. If you don’t know you are capable of failure, and aren’t given failure as an option, it really allows you to blossom in an atmosphere that is all you.
You have to work on your terms and for what is best for you. It’s about creating your best self without comparing yourself. —Molly Gallagher