10 Interesting Facts About Misty Copeland

Ballerina Misty Copeland laughing in casual wear inside a ballet studio

Mireya Acierto / Contributor / Getty Images

Misty Copeland’s prowess in ballet has attracted the press since the dancer was in her teens. At 32, however, Copeland’s name appeared in the headlines not only because of her gifts as a dancer but also because she’d made history. On June 30, 2015, the American Ballet Theatre announced that it had promoted Copeland to principal from soloist, marking the first time the then 75-year-old organization chose a Black woman for the role.

Given that Copeland grew up working class with little exposure to the classical arts as a child, few predicted that she would emerge as one of the most famous ballerinas of the 21st century. So, how did Copeland end up making history? Get to know the dancer better with this list of interesting facts about her life and career.

Ethnic Background

Born Sept. 10, 1982, to Sylvia DelaCerna and Douglas Copeland in Kansas City, Mo., Misty Copeland identifies as Black and the press largely describes her as such. However, the ballerina’s ethnic background also includes German and Italian ancestry, according to the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Copeland has spoken at length about racism in ballet. Discussing American ballet’s roots, she told the Telegraph, “George Balanchine created this image of what a ballerina should be: skin the color of a peeled apple, with a prepubescent body… So when people think of ballet, that’s what they expect to see, and when they see something different, it’s 'wrong.’”

She argued that even hair texture results in ballerinas of color being overlooked for roles.

Estrangement From Father

While Copeland describes life with her mother as chaotic, moving from place to place with too little money to make ends meet, she grew up without her father. From the ages of 2 to 22, she did not see Douglas Copeland. When they finally reconnected, thanks to her older brother tracking him down, Misty Copeland said that she viewed him as a stranger who happened to look like her. Since their reunion, they routinely speak on the phone, according to reports.

Foray Into Dancing

Although professional ballerinas typically began dancing at about age 7, Copeland got her start six years later at the Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif. Copeland and her family moved to the state from Missouri when she was a toddler. Ballet teacher Cindy Bradley taught classes at the club once a week. When Bradley coaxed a shy Copeland to try ballet, the teacher instantly took notice of the young girl’s innate talent and ballerina body—small head, sloping shoulders, short torso, and long limbs. But Copeland did not immediately become enchanted with classical dance.

“I hated it,” she told the Telegraph about her first class. “I never wanted to step outside my comfort zone, and ballet was terrifying. And I was the only one not in a leotard and tights and ballet slippers. I felt like I didn’t fit in.”

Bradley was so taken with her new pupil, however, that she offered Copeland a full scholarship to her ballet school. The prodigy’s career took off, but not without adversity.

Custody Battle

Bradley met Copeland just after DelaCerna, a single mother of six, had moved her family into a residential motel in Gardena, Calif. Lacking a car meant that DelaCerna would have to take a two-hour bus ride to and from neighboring San Pedro for Copeland to train with Bradley. Because this wasn’t sustainable long-term, DelaCerna permitted her daughter to live with Bradley. Eventually, DelaCerna felt that the dance instructor was alienating Copeland from her and demanded that Copeland return home. A nasty custody battle between the Bradleys and DelaCerna ensued, with the former urging Copeland to become an emancipated minor so she could live with them.

“They told the press, the court, and anyone else who would listen that they had just wanted me to have the kind of home life and exposure that a young, talented ballerina needed,” Copeland recalled in her 2014 memoir, Life in Motion. “That kind of stability and refinement, they argued, was something that my mother — single, with six children and little income — could hardly provide.”

Copeland ultimately withdrew her emancipation request and continued living with her family.

American Ballet Theatre

Although the Bradleys had insinuated that DelaCerna didn’t know how to rear a prodigy, Copeland continued to dance under her mother’s care and to attract attention from the nation’s major ballet companies. In 2001, she joined ABT as a member of the corps de ballet. Six years later, the ballet company promoted her to soloist. She became the first Black ballerina to play the “Firebird” in 2012. Copeland fought injuries off and on before her promotion to the position of principal dancer with ABT.

Her Role Models

As the rare prima ballerina of color, Copeland stands out as a role model for “little brown girls,” as she dubs them in her memoir. But as a protégé, she looked up to a number of women, including pop star Mariah Carey and ABT star Paloma Herrera. Herrera retired from ABT at age 39 in 2015 after joining the company in 1991. Like Copeland, Herrera was a prodigy.


Misty Copeland has emerged as one of the world’s most famous ballerinas. She’s appeared in ads for Under Armour, Coach, and Dr. Pepper, and performed with Prince. The release of her memoir, Life in Motion, expanded Copeland’s fan base even more. A Washington Post article criticized Copeland’s “Beyonce moment,” as the paper put it, arguing that the public pays far more attention to the ballerina’s backstory than to her technique as a dancer, but Copeland has said that dancing remains her top priority.

Personal Life

Copeland has been in a relationship with Olu Evans, a lawyer and cousin of actor Taye Diggs, since she was 21 years old. They live in New York.

Musical Debut

Shortly after news broke that ABT had promoted Copeland to principal, the prima ballerina revealed that in August 2015 she would star as Ivy Smith in Broadway musical “On the Town,” about three sailors on leave in New York City. Her foray into acting and singing signaled that Copeland was positioning herself to be a crossover star, much like ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has appeared in numerous film and television roles, including the hit HBO series “Sex and the City.” Ballerinas have long played the role of Ivy Smith.

Star Power

Copeland stands out not only as ABT’s top dancer but also as the ballet company’s biggest attraction. The Wall Street Journal reports that when Copeland performs with ABT, she can “sell out the Metropolitan Opera House, with about 3,800 seats.”