Misty Copeland’s historic rise in the dance industry continues. After 13 years with the American Ballet Theatre, the 32-year-old ballerina was promoted to principal dancer, making her the first Black woman to assume the role in the company’s 75 year history.
Copeland is an unlikely dancer. Unlike most prima-ballerinas, she didn’t began dancing until she was 13. Considered a prodigy, Copeland quickly rose through the ranks, winning the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award for best dancer in 1997, before joining ABT’s corps de ballet in 2001.
Despite her size–she’s just five-foot-two–Copeland overcame the dance world’s immense racism to become a household name. And over the weekend, Copeland reached another milestone when she debuted in the lead role in “Swan Lake” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, a first for an African-American ballerina.
Copeland takes her job as a trailblazer and role model seriously. In her memoir, Copeland wrote about the weight of her responsibility to the community.
“My fears are that it could be another two decades before another black woman is in the position that I hold with an elite ballet company,” she wrote in Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. “That if I don’t rise to principal, people will feel I have failed them.”
In spite of her fears, Copeland didn’t fail. She’s not only the first Black woman to become a principal dancer with ABT, but she’s also a bona fide star with endorsement deals with Dr. Pepper, Under Armour, and T-Mobile under her belt. Still, Copeland remains extremely humble and hardworking.
“I had moments of doubting myself, and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level,” she said at a news conference at the Metropolitan Opera House. “At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through, to carry the next generation. So it’s not me up here — and I’m constantly saying that — it’s everyone that came before me that got me to this position.”