A star of the ballet world, Misty Copeland is known for placing herself in the spotlight to take her audiences on an emotional journey. It may seem out-of-step that someone used to being centre stage dealt with terrible shyness as a child.

“When I say I was shy, it was beyond what most imagine,” says Copeland, who became the first African-American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre in 2015. “If I was called on to read in school, that was the most terrifying thing.”

“I don’t think my siblings are shocked when they see me perform,” Copeland says. “But, when they see me speaking in public, they are kind of like, ‘How in the world did you blossom into the person you are when you literally wouldn’t speak?’”

Drawn to music, movement and performing as a child in San Pedro, California, it was her experiences dancing which allowed her to overcome her fears. “Through the chaos of my home life—moving a lot and being one of six children—it became a way of expressing myself. Being introverted I needed to do it,” says the 36-year-old. “In a dance theatre, you can’t see the audience. It became this protective bubble when I was on stage. It was black out there and I was able to do what I love and express myself without having to speak. It has always felt like this space where no one could touch me.”

Copeland is trading in stage for screen in her latest project, the new Disney fantasy-adventure The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, opening in theatres on November 2.

While she has previously danced the role of Clara—the young heroine brought into a magical world of toy soldiers and an army of mice adapted from the 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King—Copeland plays a different character in this film. She is the Ballerina of the Realms, who introduces the fantasy sequences—the snow scene, the battle scene, the Land of the Sweets—through dance.

“My part is a story within the story,” Copeland says. “All the different characters come to see a performance and I take them through the different realms, introducing them in a bite-sized way. It is dark and scary. Then it is bright and amazing.”

Scary, then bright, is a sentiment that could also be used to describe Copeland’s own journey from struggling with shyness as a child to becoming a role model and dance superstar in the world of classical ballet.

“I feel like I have always spoken candidly about my experiences of being a black woman in the ballet world, of feeling different, of going through puberty at a late age in front of the public while in the midst of my professional career,” she says. “I think these are things that young people can relate to.”


Misty Copeland’s best of dance in New York City

Metropolitan Opera House

Misty Copeland loves dancing in Italy, Greece and Japan, but says the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City’s Lincoln Center Plaza—home to the American Ballet Theatre—is the best. “It’s the size, the beauty inside and the energy you get from a New York audience; their response changes the way we react in the moment, which is the incredible thing about live theatre.”


The American Ballet Theatre

The American Ballet Theatre’s fall season begins October 17 and includes performances of In the Upper Room, Fancy Free, and AFTERITE, a new take on Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. The ABT will perform The Nutcracker in Costa Mesa, Calif., starting Dec 14.


[This story appears in the October 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]