Monday, March 16, 2015

Inspiring a Future Generation of Ballerinas

March 16 - Today's post contributed by Misty Copeland

Inspiring a Future Generation of Ballerinas
By Misty Copeland

I’m often asked about how I became interested in ballet. I feel like I've answered this question repeatedly, but I never tire of telling people how ballet actually found me. Ballet came into my life when I was age 13, which is older than most and especially for those who want to dance professionally. It was at a time when things were challenging at home and although I was a very good student, I struggled with being the center of attention when called on in class. Ballet gave me permission to be me. Ballet ironically helped me find my voice. And most of all, ballet has opened up doors that I never imagined possible, one of them being a mentor to a younger generation of dancers.

When I had the opportunity to write a children’s book, it was not difficult to decide what the topic should be. Mentoring has become an important part of what I do as a classical ballerina. I take it as my responsibility to be that face, voice and example of what is possible for them as they begin their own journeys towards becoming professionals.

I chose to name the picture book FIREBIRD in honor of the ballet and role that I performed in 2012. It was the first time that I’d been given the chance to perform a principal role with American Ballet Theatre. I was injured and in a lot of pain, a fact that not many people knew and certainly not the artistic staff at American Ballet Theatre because I knew they’d make me pull out of the season.

It took a lot for me to get through those performances of FIREBIRD because she is powerful, strong and does a lot of jumping. I was not sure what the future held. However, I knew that on the night of June of 2012, I had to give it my all for everyone who came out to support me but also for the African American women who paved the way before me. It was one of the hardest moments of my career up until that point but when I was finished, when I took my bows, I felt satisfied that I’d done my best.

In the audience that night was Raven Wilkinson, who had to leave the U.S. to pursue her dream of being a professional ballerina in the 1950s. Raven and I came together as a matter of fate in 2011, the year before I performed FIREBIRD. It turned out that after all of those years of being inspired by her and admiring her courage and bravery, Raven lived only a few blocks from me although we’d never met. I learned that Raven had seen me perform over the years. She’d been sitting right there in the plush seats of the Metropolitan Opera House on many nights when I danced on that stage. I never knew she was there, but she was in the audience silently cheering me on.

Raven has since become my mentor and dear friend who has helped me through some of the hardest of times in my career. Her words of encouragement and wisdom have definitely carried me on the days when I feel like I can’t keep going.  When I was injured after pulling out of ABT’s Met Opera House season in 2012, Raven encouraged me to enjoy the downtime in order to gain perspective. I spent time in the park. I went swimming. I discovered new things in my neighborhood. I allowed my body to rest. All of it helped me return to the stage stronger and even more determined.

That’s why my book, FIREBIRD, with illustrations by the amazing Christopher Myers, is dedicated to Raven Wilkinson. FIREBIRD is a testament to how a mentoring relationship with Raven helped me grow even more as an artist and woman and why I am devoted to being an inspiration to younger dancers. I hope that I am truly paying it forward so that one day, these young dancers will have the chance to do the same for the next generation and the next.

Misty Copeland
Photo Credit: Gregg Delman ©
Misty Copeland joined American Ballet Theatre's Studio Company in 2000 and joined the corps de ballet in 2001. She was promoted to soloist in 2007, making her the third African American female soloist in the history of American Ballet Theatre. To date, she has performed iconic lead roles with American Ballet Theatre in Swan Lake, Coppelia, Firebird, and for the first time in the summer of 2014, "Juliet" in Romeo & Juliet.

Editor's Note:
Firebird is the winner of the 2015 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and received the 2015 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award New Writer Honor
A link to Rachelle Carey's interview with Misty Copeland
Watch Under Armour's inspiring YouTube video featuring Misty Copeland