Grace through drama: Misty Copeland’s ballerina memoir
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Young Readers Edition)
By Misty Copeland
Aladdin Books (Simon & Schuster)
This memoir of the history-making ballerina shows a young woman emerging from years of drama she didn’t ask for, and showing grace throughout.
by Brianna Westervelt
Ballerina Misty Copeland’s life in motion began early — not in the dance studio, but in her mother’s car, along with her siblings, as their mother criss-crossed the country with an exhausting series of boyfriends and husbands. From Kansas City, Missouri, the family eventually wound up in San Pedro, California, where young Misty became interested in gymnastics, then joined her school’s drill team.
She preferred contemporary dance, but the teachers around her recognized she had rare talent and could excel in classical dance, including ballet. Misty left home to move in with her ballet teacher, sparking a furious reaction from her mother and, eventually, a high-profile legal battle that played out in the news media in the late 1990s.
Somehow — and a weakness of this young adult adaptation of Copeland’s memoir is that it doesn’t say just how — the courts and lawyers worked it out. Misty was soon at the base of dance’s highest peak, the American Ballet Theatre in New York. But new troubles arose there.
Copeland suffered a stress fracture in her lower back, and while recovering put on weight. Her more womanly figure did not earn the approval of those around her, but in time she realized something that these curves included muscles — and her new figure would take her to the top of the mountain. The American Ballet Theatre staff realized it too, and, Copeland writes, “began to accept me for me.” In 2015 the ballet company made Misty Copeland the first African-American principal ballerina in its history.
Race issues in the world of classical ballet are the crux of this book, yet Copeland writes with calm conviction, like a pilot navigating her craft through the eye of a hurricane. “Some people still notice my skin color before they notice my talent,” she writes. “Others can’t see past my complexion at all because they simply don’t believe brown girls have a place in classical ballet.” Misty Copeland’s life is a compelling argument that people of color not only belong in ballet, they will transform it with their diversity.
This point she neatly makes in my favorite anecdote from the book. Backstage at the performance of Sleeping Beauty, where she has been cast as Puss in Boots, Copeland prepares to receive the usual makeup treatment for the role — white powder applied to her face.
The absurdity of it suddenly struck her. Turning to the makeup artist, Copeland declared, “I don’t understand why the cats have to be white. I want to be a brown cat.” And so, she writes, “I danced as a brown cat.”