In the opening scene of an Under Armour commercial titled “I Will What I Want,” ballet dancer Misty Copeland does warmup exercises in a dance studio as the voice of a young girl reads a rejection letter: “Dear Candidate, thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately, you have not been accepted. You lack the right feet, Achilles tendons, turnout, torso length and bust. You have the wrong body for ballet and at thirteen you are too old to be considered.”
The commercial ends with Copeland dancing on a brightly lit stage with confidence, strength and grace. In some respects, it touches on Copeland’s journey through the precarious world of classical ballet. That journey, which Copeland candidly describes in her New York Times best-selling memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, recently culminated in Copeland’s promotion in June to the globally coveted position of principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. The promotion makes her the first African-American woman to hold the title in the company’s 75-year history.
And while little ballerinas dream of one day being swans and sugar plum fairies, Copeland, 32, has been toppling barriers: at 24, she became the youngest soloist at ABT after being in the company’s corps de ballet for six years; in 2012, she became the first Black woman to dance the lead in ABT’s “The Firebird”; this year, she was counted among Time magazine’s distinguished “100 Most Influential People,” subsequently becoming one of five people on the list — and the first dancer in 21 years — to be on the cover.
Along the way, between book deals and documentaries, clothing lines and a foray into Broadway, Copeland has become a sought-after, bankable athlete. She signed a lucrative deal in 2014 with sportswear company Under Armour, joining tennis star Sloane Stephens, skier Lindsey Vonn and other top female athletes to represent the company’s brand and its commitment to making comfortable clothing for athletic women.
“Bringing on Misty Copeland is the best decision we’ve ever made,” Adrienne Lofton Shaw, Under Armour’s senior vice president of global brand marketing, said in an article. “We’ve always had powerful female athletes, but we’ve never had a story as dynamic as Misty’s, with that underdog mentality she has … bucking up against all these traditional norms, showing men, women and kids that athletes come in all shapes and sizes.”
When Dance Theater of Harlem honored UA, Leanne Fremar, head of the firm’s Women’s Division, told TNJ.com, “It was the will of Misty to change the complexion of the ballet world I knew growing up. She had the determination to turn what the world told her into something else and demonstrate, ‘I will become a ballet dancer.’”
UA CEO Kevin Plank is quoted as saying that Copeland’s involvement with UA “has helped to grow sales.”
For Copeland’s part, her focus extends beyond being an accomplished ballerina. “My goal has always been to see more highly trained Black women in this art form. Being promoted to principal dancer was never just about me. It was always about proving that we can succeed in ballet so young brown ballerinas can see the same future for themselves,” she told TNJ in an email. Indeed, she has been fearless about speaking out on the issue and the dance world is taking notice.
Copeland and Gilda Squire, principal of Gilda Squire Media Relations who manages her business affairs, recently spoke to TNJ about the business side of Copeland’s artistry.
TNJ: Gilda, as Misty’s manager, do you approach companies about endorsement deals or do they contact you?
Squire: A mixture of both. When we started working together, I was approaching brands that made sense, brands that would appreciate working with a ballerina. When I came into her life, she already had deals with Bloch and a couple of other dance-specific outlets. And there was a partnership between ABT and Payless Shoes. Misty was one of the ballerinas spotlighted in that campaign. But we wanted to take it outside of the dance world. Now, potential partners and sponsors usually come to me.
TNJ: Other than ABT, what’s on Misty’s schedule for 2016?
Squire: It’s hard to say. She has so much on her plate: a deal with Seiko; a documentary, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” with Nelson George. Misty is intimately involved with all of these responsibilities whether film, book, TV or endorsement deal. She does not just put her name on things. So, to think about another deal, it would have to be the right opportunity. If it is, we have to think of when she can do it. Everything has to work around her full-time ballet schedule.
TNJ: Would you say that Misty’s endorsement deals contributed to ABT’s decision to promote her?
Squire: While I think that ABT appreciates the attention that Misty has helped bring to the company, I know that at the end of the day, the promotion was a result of the artistic director’s complete view of Misty as a dancer and artist. Even with all of the publicity and promotion around Misty, if she were not an artist who is up to the high standards of what is expected of a principal dancer at ABT, she would have never been promoted.
TNJ: Misty, ABT’s CEO Rachel Moore told TNJ.com that a big problem regarding the lack of diversity in ballet is that, due to a lack of money and resources, African-American girls often don’t get the proper training needed for advancement. Do you agree? Or do artistic directors want the companies to remain mostly white?
Copeland: Yes, access to adequate resources and the proper training is definitely an issue. However, I’ve frequently talked very openly about the fact that because this is a European art form, there is a history of seeing mostly white women on the stage. But that’s changing, with women like Courtney Lavine, a member of the corps de ballet, and me at ABT; Erica Lall in ABT’s Studio Company; Michaela DePrince at the Dutch National Ballet in Holland; Kayla Rowser at Nashville Ballet; and Ashley Murphy at The Washington Ballet. That’s just a few that I know personally. So change is happening and my goal is for it to continue. Black women have been in this art form for decades and we are still here today. I think that there is more opportunity for visibility now because of the media and social media, so we can actually see change happening.
TNJ: What was your career-defining moment?
Copeland: I’d have to say that “Swan Lake” was one of the highlights of my career. I’d never seen myself as the Swan Queen because I wasn’t accustomed to seeing a Black woman in the role. Lauren Anderson, who retired from the Houston Ballet in 2006, was one who danced the role in a full production of “Swan Lake.” But seeing a Black woman in the role has not been the norm. So when I had the chance to dance the lead in “Swan Lake,” it was a career-defining moment. I danced for all of the Black women before me who never had the chance. I danced for them.
TNJ: What do most girls ask you when they meet you? What do you hope they feel when they see you perform?
Copeland: I am asked about a variety of things. Many of the girls who are interested in ballet and are taking classes ask about how to find better schools, tips to improve their technique, and things I’ve done throughout my career to stay focused on pushing forward. I hope that they feel inspired and motivated. I always want to offer insight and information that will help them to stay the course. As for when I’m performing, I hope they see themselves being on that stage one day, that they’re encouraged to know that there is someone like them who made it and they can make it, too.
Read TNJ Editor Sergie Willoughby’s articles “ABT Launches Project Plié” and “Misty Copeland Named Principal Dancer at ABT” at TNJ.com for additional coverage of the issue of diversity in ballet.