Misty Copeland: Only African-American Soloist With The American Ballet Theatre Still Feels She Must Prove Herself

Pam WrightLife

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Misty Copeland, the only African-American soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, is busy performing in the holiday perennial, Stravinsky's The Nutcracker, with the world-renowned dance company in New York City. Despite all of her accomplishments, the dancer says still feels as if she has something to prove.

The 32-year-old began dancing as an escape from a tumultuous childhood growing up in California — at times homeless — with her five siblings and her mother, who married and remarried four times.

"Whenever there was chaos in my house, whether it was arguing, being in a cramped space with all of us kids and screaming, I found an empty space where I could just put music on and move," Copeland said in an interview with Anthony Mason for CBS Sunday Morning.

Copeland, who recently released her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, began studying ballet at 13. Her first break came at 18, when she began dancing for the American Ballet Theatre, which was also a revelation for the young dancer.

"And that's when I looked around me, and in a company of 80 dancers realized I was the only black woman. I felt completely isolated and alone, and that's kind of when it all hit me," she said.

She became the first African-American soloist with the company in 2012, when she was given the lead in Stravinsky's Firebird, followed by the principal role in Swan Lake, a part that has meant a great deal to Copeland.

"It's what ballet is," she said. "It's kind of reaching the pinnacle. It's the most challenging in every way, but to be a black woman and to be given that role is even bigger.

"I think it's just changing the way people are viewing ballerinas," she said. "You just typically think of this long, tall, white woman, Russian usually. Soft and willowy. And I'm not!"

She has one more goal to achieve in her dancing career — to become the first African-American principal dancer with the company. As much as she longs for the title, doubts continue to plague her.

"For me," she said, "it's just proving myself to people -- that's the most daunting.

"That I belong. That I'm capable. That I'm a ballerina. That it doesn't matter what color I am. It doesn't matter what body type I have."

"Do you feel like you're still proving this?" asked Mason.

"I don't think it will ever end," she replied. "I think that it's something that's going to take the ballet world a very long time to get used to. And I don't think its going to happen within my lifetime. But it's starting."

To watch the entire CBS Sunday Morning interview, click here.

Pam Wright