Watch: Misty Copeland talks books and why she champions ballet

Watch: Misty Copeland talks books and why she champions ballet

Become a member of Ballerina Book Club by signing up for our newsletter. You can learn more about this month’s pick, “The Lying Life of Adults” by Elena Ferrante, here.

Watch Misty Copeland join fellow American Ballet Theatre principal dancer and Ballerina Book Club host Isabella Boylston to talk writing, art and education

When I came up with my wish list of artists to interview for Ballerina Book Club, Misty was at the top. She’s changed the game and inspired me and so many. In addition to all of her accomplishments in the ballet world, she’s a best-selling author.

One of the things I missed most about this Met season was getting to share a dressing room with my sisters, Misty and Stella Abrera. Those times we spend together backstage create a unique bond that I treasure so deeply. Speaking of the Met season, Misty was slated for a historic performance of “Romeo and Juliet” opposite the stunning danseur noble Calvin Royal III, who’s this month’s “Friend Picks” interview.

Luckily, I was able to catch up with Misty over Zoom for this interview in May. I really enjoyed hearing Misty’s take on how writing and dancing are parallel creative process. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!

Don’t miss her new children’s book “Bunheads,” available Sept. 29.

Watch the full interview in the video above. A modified transcript is below.

The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Hi, Misty. Welcome to “Ballerina Book Club.” We’re so happy that you’re here.

Thank you. I’m so, so excited. I’ve never done anything like this with my friends and colleagues.

I know. Okay, so, first thing: We should talk about when we first met.

Okay. Oh, my gosh. Do you remember this story?

I don’t think so. I mean, all I know is when I first came to ABT, obviously, I knew who you were. I had the Pointe Magazine with you on the cover. And I was just intimidated, frankly, because you were just this impressive figure and beautiful dancer and everything.

You’re crazy. No, I just remember you were new to the studio company, just starting with the new group. And we were at a party. I can’t remember whose house we were at. And you came up to me — maybe it was some type of donor thing, but I just remember it was a house and party situation — and you introduced yourself as Hildur. And then you were like, “Wait. I mean, Isabella. I mean, wait.” And I was like, “Huh?” And it was so adorable. And that was my first impression of you.

“Is she okay? She doesn’t even know her name.”

[Laughs]

It was so adorable.

Where are you quarantining? What have you been up to?

I am here in New York City. I’ve been here pretty much the whole time. I took a small trip to California, but I’m with my husband. And it’s amazing to actually have time. So much of my time is dedicated to everything — all the different projects and being a professional dancer and being part of ABT, writing, all of those things. So it’s nice to just kind of have time to just feel like a human being again, which is weird because I know that a lot of people don’t feel human in these moments. But I think that it’s a beautiful opportunity for us to just connect with one another.

Totally. I feel the same. I feel like I haven’t had a break since I went to boarding school.

Since you were 5. No.

Yeah. I think I’ve just been, like, clawing my way up.

So, as I was reading your book “Life in Motion” — your wonderful, wonderful book. Everyone needs to read this book, whether you’re a ballet lover or not. It’s just an amazing, amazing story. Beautiful. I was reading the opening about “Firebird” and it brought back so many memories of that whole creation process. That was so crazy. It feels so long ago.

It was really a special moment for me and you and for Natalia Osipova. It just felt so like this tiny little bubble that we were in. I mean, we were off at the time, right? We came in when ABT was on a layoff?

We came in on our break, right?

ABT was in layoff. And they asked for us to come in early to start working with Alexei [Ratmansky]. I remember those days being so brutal, and I remember going to Equinox across the street from 890 [Broadway] after every rehearsal because the pain in my shin had already started to develop from doing so much jumping. And it was just the three of us for hours on end.

Oh, yeah.

That was insane.

Totally. And just, like, bending over backward …

To please!

… to make the choreography come life. 

That time was so special. But, yeah, I would go to the jacuzzi and steam room like every single day and just massage my shin muscles. And I wasn’t really telling anyone. And that’s the start of the whole book, was that kind of setting the scene with that really just big moment in my career. Because that was really, I think, what allowed me to be in the position that I’m in. I think, had Alexei not given me that opportunity, there’s no way I would have, at 29 years old, gotten to do a principal role, randomly, that I’d never been given an opportunity to do. So, I mean, that moment was so vital. And that’s why the book started that way.

Whenever I think of his “Firebird,” honestly, I think of you, because I feel like I just remember watching you in rehearsal and how you would shape the movement. And it was like you were completely making it your own and you knew exactly who the Firebird was. And I remember that was so impressive to me because I wasn’t that experienced at the time. And I was like, “Oh, that’s how you work with a choreographer, that’s how you show her or him what you think the movement should be and make it your own.” It was such an amazing experience.

It really was, and I just remember it bonding the three of us, as well. But it was just such a special time. And what’s interesting is that when I got injured, that’s when I was approached to write my memoir. It was during that time that someone had reached out to me. And I was like, “What? I’m 29. Why am I going to write a memoir? Who wants to hear my story?” But that’s where it all began. I’m working on, I think, my fourth or fifth book now.

It comes out in the fall, right?

It comes out in the fall. It’s called “Bunheads.” And it’s just really opened up an incredible other side of expressing myself through art, which writing, I think, is an art form. And it’s so cathartic. I’ve been journaling and writing since I was like 12, 13 years old, and I need to do more of it. It’s so different to actually write, rather than just — because I journal a lot in my notes, in my phone. But it’s just not the same experience to actually read a book and to write on paper.

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I was going to ask you about what you briefly just touched on. I feel like dancing and writing are obviously very different creative processes. But are there any parallels that you’ve found, as a writer and a dancer, creatively or artistically?

Absolutely, yeah. So, as a child, I literally didn’t have a voice. Like, there were people that I went to school with that thought I was mute. No joke, no joke. I was so introverted because I was just so protective over my situation at home and just the fear of being judged. It was like, “I just want to survive, and I don’t want to have to deal with anything outside of that.” Like, you know, trying to be someone I’m not or trying to make up stories to make myself fit in. I literally just didn’t talk, and I just wouldn’t hang out with anyone. So, I was definitely a loner. And writing was just so freeing for me. It literally was the only way that I could get out what was inside of me until I found dance. And then I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is on another level.”

And I owe it to, I think, art coming into my life. That allowed me to find who I was and feel confident in that. Ballet was the first space that I felt like I fit in and I felt like I was beautiful and that I was good at something. And then to step into the writing process … School was not a good experience for me. And I think it’s because I didn’t have arts in my life. And I think that I couldn’t learn in the way that I needed to without having art. Like, it gave me so many tools. It allowed me to — just for my brain to work in the way that my brain needed to work. And I think that’s why it’s so important for the arts to be in schools. I don’t think that a child, or a human being, should be without it. You know, it’s literally the first thing that you do when you come out of the womb is you move your body and you use your voice.

I think that’s definitely what has saved me. But I think it’s very similar to dancing. I think that as an artist — and I know you’re the same — we kind of approach whatever it is we do in life kind of with the same intent as our art, whether it’s cooking … I find ways of just expressing myself through these different realms of art.

I feel exactly the same. I couldn’t agree more with everything you just said about the importance of art. And I mean, I felt the same. I always felt like such a loner, an outsider, until I went to ballet boarding school. And then, even though there were really hard things about that, I was just like, “Ah, my people. My niche.” Dancing and reading were my two escapes from whatever hardships I was dealing with in my life.

Were you a big reader or a bookworm? What was your journey with reading?

I would say that more so being in libraries was what I would do, rather than being a bookworm. I wrote more than I was doing outside reading at home. I think also because of the way that I grew up … Growing up with five siblings in a single-parent home, we weren’t getting tutoring. We weren’t being looked after for education. And we literally were just, again, surviving. Moving from home to home, sometimes not having a home, not having food on the table, just in and out of different schools. And so that was never something that was a priority. It was my mom keeping a job and feeding us. So that was definitely not something that was a part of the structure of my childhood. But I definitely found an escape through reading, though, and through storytelling. But being in libraries, like at lunch: I just didn’t want to get close to anyone, because I didn’t want them to know my personal situation. So I would eat lunch or hide out in the library, or eat in the bathroom. So, I feel like the library was a very safe place for me. But, yeah, I have memories of just a lot of children’s books that I feel really affected me. And I remember “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Oh, I loved that book.

I think that was something that, looking back, I realize, I think, how artistic I was, even though I wasn’t a part of any art form, just that I found that to be this kind of comforting, normal story when it’s not.

[Laughs]

Totally.

Like, “That looks normal.”

[Laughs]

“That parallels my life.”

Very relatable.

So relatable.

Charlotte’s Web” … And then, when I started dancing, to read “Dancing on My Grave” was just …

Oh, my god, yes. That blew my mind.

Blew my mind. Yeah. And so I think that I just kind of grew into discovering these things on my own — again, because it wasn’t something that was structured in my household at all. So I feel like books came into my life, more so on my terms, at an older age.

What’s weird is that, my brother was (my oldest brother, he’s an artist, as well, but was really good in school), but he was craving that. We just didn’t have access in where we would live and stuff. But he would read the dictionary and thesaurus. And I was just like, “He is crazy.” He clearly was craving, needing something like that in his life. So, it’s just fascinating how we’re different.

It seems like you guys were very much self-taught in whatever area. You obviously had the tenacity to just plow ahead against all odds. 

I don’t think that I could have gone through everything that I have had I not had the upbringing and experiences in my life to just kind of give me that strength and will. It was normal to me to just be in survival mode. And so coming into the ballet world, it was like, “Oh, this is nothing compared to what I’ve seen and been through in my 13 years.” I was so hungry for stability and structure. I didn’t have that in my life. And ballet was all of those things. It was literally everything I needed. It was structure, it was balance. But then it was also this freedom of expression without speaking. And so I think that’s why I was just so drawn to it. But my siblings definitely, I think, are … we were each other’s best friends, and we supported one another, and to this day. We were just this little bunch that survived together.

I really appreciated how your book was not at all like a slam piece. And I feel like I know you’ve dealt with a ton of adversity in your trajectory to becoming a ballerina, but I just felt like it was such a nuanced portrayal of everything that you’ve experienced.

Thank you, Bella. I think … the life that I have now wouldn’t have happened without ballet coming into my life, or having amazing people that have come into my life and mentored me. And so, I would do everything over again the same just to get back to this position of just feeling so fulfilled and enriched. But I know how important it is to express those things, because I feel like so many people just have such negative ideas and perceptions about what ballet is. And it’s like that was not my experience at all. I mean, of course, everything that you can think of on the earth has some negative sides to it. But I’m on this mission and journey to change the way that ballet is depicted in film and TV and media because it can enrich lives, which it’s done for all of us.

Absolutely, yeah. I mean, honestly, you’ve inspired me so much in that way. I just want everyone to love it as much as I do.

I know, I know. I mean, we have these platforms to be able to reach and access so many people. And that’s what the ballet world needs: more people that appreciate it and can see it and relate to it. And so I think that, without a virtual presence, there’s no way we can be sustainable and grow.

Yeah, no, I totally agree … I’m so sad to not be performing because I feel like the Met season, in particular, is such a time of artistic growth for us. I feel like, in a way, it’s a missed opportunity. But I think we’re growing in other ways as artists. We’re gaining other experiences and knowledge and connecting more, sharing more, so …

I completely agree.

Honestly, one reason I wanted to start “Ballerina Book Club” is because I just felt like a lot of what I was putting on my Instagram was just really frivolous and lighthearted. And I wanted to be able to connect with my audience in a more intellectual way. And I’ve always been such a huge bookworm. And so, hopefully, something that will happen from people watching these interviews and participating in the book club is just seeing a different side of these artists.

Yeah, I mean, what’s so interesting about what you said is that I remember, when I first started dancing — and I think I said it in the book — I’m like, “If I’m gonna call anyone out, it’s gonna be one of my siblings.”

[Laughs]

But my brother Chris — I wrote about it in the book — but my brother Chris, I remember having (it’s still so vivid in my mind) these arguments with him, when I started dancing, about [how] I would come home and just be exhausted in every way — mentally, emotionally, physically. And he just couldn’t comprehend why. And he would just say, “I don’t understand. You’re not even using your brain.” And I feel like that’s kind of — not to throw him under the bus, and clearly he’s evolved since he was 14 — that people just think that it’s just this kind of very light, physical thing that we do. But that’s why I champion it so much, just because it’s like you’re using so many parts of yourself that so many people never access — the connection between music and your brain, and music and your body, and your emotions, and then all of those things tying together. I can’t think of anything else that uses the whole of your being like dance does, in particular. And so, yeah, I just think that it’s so important to let people know that we are so much more than just twirling around on the stage in a tutu. And we are intelligent and we read and we write.

One more question about “Life in Motion.” I’m just curious, what do you feel like the legacy of this book is? Because I feel like it really has changed the culture. I really feel like, in a way. Not just the book, but you. And I think this book was a first step of you sharing your experience and helping to educate. Do you ever think about that? What the long-term impact is?

I think that I just hope to leave people with a positive idea and image of what ballet is, and also to use my voice to share stories that deserve for people to know about. And I have a production company, and I’m working on a lot of dance. Everything is, as of now, connected and comes back to dance and ballet in some way. But to be able to be in a position to give respect toBlack and Brown dancers that never got the opportunities that I have, that people don’t know about. You can’t open up a book and learn about so many African-American ballet dancers. And that’s definitely something that I want to leave. That when people think of me, they think of every dancer who got me to this place. And then, in the end, that people are like, “She was a good dancer.”

[Both laugh]

We’ve established that you’re an an amazing dancer.

No, but just, because I know that so many dancers want to be the best, and all these goals. But I just want people to know how much I respect the art form, and I respect the history and the tradition, and that everything that I’ve gained from this has given me the life I have and has made me the person that I am, and that I’m grateful and that I’ve represented ballet in an honorable way.

This part is called, “Have You Read This? No or Yass.”

Oh!

“Just Kids” by Patti Smith?

No.

Okay, I’m gonna send you that.

I’m going to be like, “No. No. No. No.”

“Harry Potter”?

No. Not really my genre.

“Romeo and Juliet”?

Yes.

“Educated”?

I’m not sure.

It came out pretty recently. 

Then no.

It’s really good.

I’m sure I have it in my’cause Olu owns, like, every book.

Olu has probably read it.

He absolutely has.

“Fifty Shades of Grey”?

Yes.

[Laughs]

I’m so into it.

If you would just recommend one book to readers — okay, or like a couple of books?

I feel like I’m so — similar to my personality — I’m kind of all over the charts. So, I’m not just kind of one thing. I love everything that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes.

Oh, yes!

I think that it’s a very clear perception of what it is to be a Black American.

Did you read “The Water Dancer“?

I haven’t read that yet. I have it, I have it. I haven’t read it yet.

And then I love to just have more light stuff. I love like — well, this was years ago now — but Emily Giffin. I own like every book that she’s ever written. She did “Something Borrowed, Something Blue.”

It’s kind of my, like, guilty pleasure.

But then a book that I continue to come back to, for probably over a decade is “The Power of Now.”

That’s literally on my bedside table. I need to read that.

Yes, girl.

Okay, I’m going to. I’ll start it.

[Chuckles]

But that’s something that the way that I read it changes so much each time I do because it improves my life. So it’s really fascinating. That one is something that I definitely would recommend.

Okay, cool, awesome. I’ll definitely pick it up. Well, Misty, oh, my gosh. Thank you so much for doing this. I know I already said this a lot, but I look up to you, and you inspire me so much. I love you so much. Thanks, friend.

I love you. Thank you for having me on.


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Top Image: Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston.