San Pedro native Misty Copeland defies the odds and illustrates that—with perseverance and fierce dedication—anything is possible.
- Written byJennie Nunn
It’s 2:30 p.m. on December 22, 2015 at Lauridsen Ballet Centre in Torrance. A banner with the words “Welcome Home, Misty!” in block letters is flanked by two large, gold bows and stretches across the mirror in the studio. A class of 30 eager students, mostly ages 12 and up, are buzzing with excitement—patiently standing adjacent to barres in anticipation of today’s special guest teacher: American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American female principal dancer, Misty Copeland.
Misty, 33, who trained at this same studio from 1996 to 1998 when she was ages 15 to 18, is back from New York (where she currently resides) to teach a few master classes here and at San Pedro Ballet School. She is also here to attend the dedication of a square (at the corner of 13th Street and Pacific Avenue) named in her honor in her hometown, San Pedro.
Before she is announced, three ballerinas with buns meticulously positioned on top of their heads and dressed in pink tights, black leotards and blue, pink or red sashes grab arms and smile from ear to ear as if it is the best day of their lives. They know how big this day is. For most, it is a real-life dream come true.
Misty, whose long list of accolades and accomplishments include being named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People
last year; debuting a children’s book, Firebird; performing with Prince on his Welcome 2 America tour; and being a sponsored athlete for Under Armour, was a student here shortly after she first started dancing.
“I know she has certainly inspired my kids, and they feel a great deal of pride that she is from this studio. They watch her, and they really want to be that good,” says artistic director Diane Lauridsen. “Misty has extraordinary talent, and it blows people out of the water. She’s a hard worker and very dedicated, and she has not let stardom go to her head. She’s given back and helped the community, and she’s extraordinarily busy and she has a lot of causes.”
Today, all grown up and engaged to attorney Olu Evans, the ballerina—who has penned the book Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (with author Charisse Jones) and is the subject of a newly-released documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale—is also here to give back. Misty walks in and greets the class wearing black tights, ballet shoes and a charcoal grey Under Armour tank with the phrase “I Will What I Want” imprinted on it, showing off her perfectly sculpted arms.
“I learned so much of my technique from Diane,” she says while smiling to the class. “I want to work really clean and basic.”
As the class continues, Misty moves quietly and methodically around the studio, surveying the students and offering pointers such as, “Be aware of where your arms are and think of creating a frame around your face” and “When you think ballet, you think grand, but really elongate the neck” and “Be aware of the positions that you’re creating” and “I know this is different than what you’re used to, but it’s good to break out of the patterns.”
During the hour-and-a-half class, it’s clear Misty is living her dream and is equally passionate about mentoring young dancers and helping others. “Relax and enjoy,” she stresses gently with a smile. The class concludes after a series of floor work exercises including pirouettes, grand jetés and sashays, followed by a meet-and-greet.
“She’s also done a lot to put ballet on the map,” adds Diane. “Ballet is a tradition that started in the 1500s and has been continuous. Misty has done a lot to open the eyes of the public. Ballet is very difficult and unappreciated because we go out of our way to make it look easy. It inspires passion in those who understand it.”
Misty grew up one of six children, with humble beginnings in San Pedro. It definitely wasn’t always so clear that she would become one of the most famous ballerinas in history. In fact, she was shy and a little hesitant in the beginning.
Elizabeth “Liz” Cantine, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident and former teacher of history, English and dance drill team at Dana Middle School in San Pedro, affectionately recalls the first time she spotted Misty at age 13. “She tried out for drill team captain, and there were three girls standing in the gym. I looked at her, and I pointed to her and said, ‘I’ll take that one,’” recounts Liz, who is also Misty’s godmother (her husband, Dick, is her godfather). “She could do everything. She was naturally flexible, naturally strong and had incredible musicality.”
Liz also smiles with excitement when she recounts the first time she choreographed Hall of The Mountain King and had Misty in it—and they won. She also had Misty mimic an infamous scene in the film White Nights when Mikhail Baryshnikov effortlessly places his leg up on the wall in perfect line with his ear.
“I said, ‘Misty, can you go over to the edge of the stage in the auditorium and put your leg up on the wall?’ and she said, ‘Oh sure,’ and did it. It was like that. She could do anything,” says Liz, who regularly sees Misty for visits and performances and keeps in touch with her via text and email. (Liz still sends texts to Misty before she goes on stage, and Misty always has time to respond to say, “Thank you” or “I love you.”)
“She had such natural stage presence,” explains Liz. “I said, ‘Misty, is this your first time on stage?’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ The magic, the aura and the sincerity … and her heart was just in it, and it was just so natural.”
From there, Liz called Cindy Bradley, artistic director of San Pedro City Ballet, and said, “You’ve got to see this girl. She is just absolutely phenomenal.” Liz continues the story: “And Cindy came over to watch her in my drill team class and said, ‘We’ve got to get her into ballet,’ and I said, ‘Yes!’”
Cindy suggested that she come across the street. (Dana Middle School was right across the street from The Boys & Girls Club, and Cindy was teaching a free class once a week.)
“It took a couple times of coaching, I remember, and encouraging her,” says Liz, a former professional dancer and president of California Dance Educators Association. She found it very different from what we did in our drill team classes.
Liz continues: “And then when she went, she just had her socks and she didn’t have any other attire. And it was the first ballet class she ever took. I think it took Misty a while to say she loved ballet, and it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to go across the street.’ We did a lot of jazz and musical theatre but didn’t use ballet barres. But Cindy came the next day or the next week and said, ‘She can be the first African-American prima ballerina.’ And the talent? Everyone recognized it. As soon as I saw her even just standing that first day, I knew she was the one in a million, or the one in a billion.”
Liz has a ballet studio in her home with autographed pictures of Misty pinned to the walls of the room. “We asked her what she wanted to do,” she says, “and she said, ‘I want to dance professionally with American Ballet Theatre.’ She very much wanted to give the message to women and to dancers of color.”
Liz also remains an advocate of arts education in public schools. “I have fought for years to keep arts education in the schools, and it’s so important because if we hadn’t had the class, I wouldn’t have seen her and wouldn’t have called Cindy Bradley … and she might still be dancing in a little room or something. Don’t take out the arts; that’s what keeps students motivated, and then we can do anything.”
Becoming Ballet’s “It Girl”
Although Misty, who joined American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company in 2000 and became soloist in 2007 and principal dancer in August, has graced the pages of magazines and newspapers from Glamour to the Los Angeles Times and has fiercely devoted her life to ballet, she has also overcome major adversity while maintaining her down-to-earth and kind demeanor.
“She’s still as sweet and as thoughtful and as genuine as ever,” says Liz. “She’s more mature, eloquent and articulate and well-traveled, but she’s still the same Misty. Dick and I always knew she would be a huge success. She had such discipline. When she dances, that’s her voice, and for certain Misty found it. We’re so proud of her, and it’s so great to see her so happy.”
“She worked really very hard, and she deserves everything she has gotten,” adds Diane. “When she was 16 years old, she knew what she wanted. Misty is a very special person, and she has changed ballet for a lot of people.”