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'It chips away at you': Misty Copeland on the whiteness of ballet

Misty Copeland has been a principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre since 2015. She took a break from performing due to COVID-19 and the birth of her son in spring 2022, but she hopes to be back on stage in 2023

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. My guest, Misty Copeland, became the first African American woman to become a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, America's national ballet company. That was in 2015, the same year the company celebrated its 75th year. She was the only Black woman in the company for the first 10 years of her career. Among the principal roles she danced was the title role of "The Firebird," the Stravinsky ballet, and the dual role of the swan queen and the black swan in "Swan Lake."

Her new memoir is about the pride and pressures of being a first in a world she describes as refusing to see Black people as equals capable of succeeding in traditionally, quote, "European art forms." Her skin color, her body, her hair didn't conform to what ballerinas were supposed to look like. She was told many times to give up ballet and pursue modern dance instead. But she became a ballet star and a star outside of ballet. She danced in a performance with Prince on his "Welcome 2 America" tour and danced on Broadway in the revival of "On The Town." For her performances and for her work advocating for greater representation in ballet and other art forms, in 2015, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Her new memoir, "The Wind At My Back," is also about her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, who, in 1955, became the first Black ballerina to receive a contract with a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Back then, segregation was legally mandated in much of the South. Wilkinson was not allowed to stay with the rest of the company in hotels or eat with them in restaurants. And she was frequently in mortal danger. Ku Klux Klan members once stormed the stage of one of the company's rehearsals looking for her. To protect herself and the company from credible threats, she had to stop touring with them in the South and then quit the company and continue her career outside of America with the Dutch National Ballet. Misty Copeland says her journey would have been impossible without Wilkinson's career, her example, her love and friendship.

Misty Copeland, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the new memoir.

MISTY COPELAND: Thank you so much.

GROSS: What was it about your body that was considered wrong for ballet?

COPELAND: Well, you know, what's interesting is that when I started ballet at 13 years old, I was told I had everything that it took to be a ballet dancer - physically, artistically. So, you know, that's why there's kind of this interesting, like, dichotomy when I think about Black women, specifically in ballet, and the language that's being used in telling us that we are wrong for ballet. Again, you know, I had the ideal body.

When I joined American Ballet Theatre, you know, of course, I went through puberty and - like a lot of dancers, you know, who become professionals between the ages of 16 and 18. And my body did change. But once I became a professional, that's when people started to really see me as a Black woman in a company where there weren't any. And that's when the language started to change around me, you know, fitting in. I was told - I'm still, to this day - I, you know, will read things, you know, that I don't belong because my breasts are too large; my muscles are too big; I'm too short.

But these are all excuses because there are so many dancers who are not of color who have similar body types to me, that are shorter, that have larger breasts and bigger muscles. So, you know, throughout the course of my professional career, it's really been about me understanding the language that's being used and having conversations about that because that's been what's turned so many Black women away from ballet, is because they are told those things.

GROSS: You danced - among the leading roles that you had was the role of the swan queen, the white swan, in "Swan Lake" and the role of the black swan. You danced a dual role. Is "Swan Lake" maybe, like, the whitest of all classical ballets 'cause, you know, like, the swan, it's - she's a white swan.

COPELAND: Right. Yeah, I'd say it's up there. You know, there's a whole category of classical works called the ballet blancs, which translates to the white ballets.

GROSS: I didn't know that.

COPELAND: Yes. And "Swan Lake" is one of them. But "Les Sylphides," "Giselle," "La Bayadere," "Swan Lake" - all of these ballets that have a second act where the entire corps de ballet is dressed in all white, white tutus or whatever it is they would be wearing. And they typically are portraying a character that's otherworldly. And so they tend to have the dancers all powder their skin with white powder to make them look, you know, otherworldly, to make them look like they're not alive.

But it doesn't really translate on brown skin. You know, it's one thing just to cover the skin and make it not shine so it doesn't look as human. It's another thing to have someone paint their skin white. And that's been the pattern of, you know, experience of Black women in these ballets if they're even allowed to perform in those acts, in those ballets. But, yes, you know, what you just said, you know, the fact that it's a white swan that we're portraying and so many Black and brown women have been told that, you know, well, she's a white swan - like, why would we put a Black or brown body in that? So, yes, it is - it was quite a big deal for me to portray that role at American Ballet Theatre or for any Black woman to portray that role.

But my kind of argument, I guess, has always been that, you know, we're playing characters. We're actors and actresses on stage. You know, we - these dancers who are portraying the black swan aren't Black. And swans come in different colors. And again, it's taking on a role. And that's what - that's the true beauty of art. It's telling a story. It's becoming something you're not and convincing people that they are in this world with you.

GROSS: It's such a good point you just made that to dance the role of the black swan, you don't have to be Black, you know? Yeah. I think the first time you danced in the American Ballet Theatre's corps de ballet was in "Swan Lake," and you had to do what you just said. You not only had to use white powder; you had to use white foundation...

COPELAND: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which is thicker than powder...

COPELAND: Right.

GROSS: ...And more closely approximating a kind of paint.

COPELAND: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your reaction? Can you compare your reaction to having to do that then, very early in your career, and how you think about that now?

COPELAND: Yeah. It's difficult for a young person who - you know, you think about the history and the level of American Ballet Theatre and what that company means for ballet. And to be this young - you know, I think I was 19 at the time when I performed at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the first time. You know, a couple of years - maybe three or four years before that, I was living in a motel with my five siblings and my single mom. And now I'm, you know, on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House getting this opportunity. And it's kind of this pressure. It's like, well, this is what it takes to be in this position. You're getting this opportunity, so you have to fit in. And, you know, I think that deep down inside, you know, it was something that felt very uncomfortable for me.

You know, I think about my experience when I first started dancing in the small studio in San Pedro, Calif. And my teacher, Cynthia Bradley, who was a white woman but was very kind of grounded and connected to all of these things we're talking about with race in ballet - and I remember her letting me wear skin-colored tights and a lot of the classical roles I was performing as a young person.

GROSS: When you say a skin color, you mean white skin color, right?

COPELAND: No, I mean my skin color.

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.

COPELAND: She was - which is not really allowed. I mean, things are changing today.

GROSS: That's why I thought you meant white skin color.

COPELAND: Right.

GROSS: I thought she was trying to, like, cover up.

COPELAND: No. That's the norm. That's the norm...

GROSS: Ah.

COPELAND: ...Is that everyone wears pink tights, and that's representative of white skin. So it was something I was aware of when I was 19 and came into ABT, that I, you know, would have to wear pink tights in all the classical works. And then having to go on stage and, you know, make my skin - attempt to make my skin look like the other dancers - you know, it chips away at you. As the years went on, it just, you know - the more that I'd look around, you know, and not see people who looked like me, not see other women who looked like me, and I'm painting my skin over and over - it was something I started to talk about, you know, whether it was with my colleagues, eventually with the artistic staff and with my artistic director, Kevin McKenzie.

And eventually, I don't know, maybe seven, eight years later, I would have that conversation with the wardrobe department, with hair and makeup and kind of debate who - you know, what the sole purpose of this tradition is. And as I was saying earlier, you know, if it's just to make us look otherworldly, then why can't I have brown powder to powder my skin to take that shine away? Why am I changing the color? And I did it as a principal dancer when approaching - the last time I performed the role of "Swan Lake," I did that - and in other roles where I was told to paint my skin white. So I did push back. But we have a long way to go still.

GROSS: Sure. Sure. Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Misty Copeland. She was the first African American principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre. Her new memoir, "The Wind At My Back," is about her dance career, but it's also about her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, who in 1955 became the first Black ballerina to receive a contract with a major ballet company, the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA 'S "CELLO SOLO NO. 2 IN D MINOR, BWV 1008: III. COURANTE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Misty Copeland, the first African American principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre. Her new memoir, "The Wind At My Back," is also about her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, who in 1955 became the first Black ballerina to receive a contract with a major ballet company in America.

When you became the first Black principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre, what did it mean to you to be the first?

COPELAND: Oh. You know, it had been such a long journey to getting to that point. So my ideas of what I was striving for had evolved a lot, especially after meeting Raven and in our relationship developing into what it was. She changed, like, my outlook on how I looked at my path and my purpose. You know, when I first joined the company - and I think most dancers have this goal. They get into the corps de ballet or apprentice with a company, and they say, like, my goal is to be a principal dancer. And that becomes, like, everything. That becomes your mission day in and day out.

But over time, I realized that it wasn't so much about that title for me, that it was really about getting the opportunities to be on stage in roles that would make an impact on my community, Black and brown people coming to the theater and seeing me on the stage. That was the goal. It was to bring a more diverse audience in to give opportunity to the next generation. But after 15 years in the company, which is a long time to be in the company and still be working towards becoming a principal dancer - that's not common. You know, typically, if you're not promoted to that position within maybe the first 10 years of your career, it most likely is not going to happen.

So, you know, after 15 years, I was really kind of comfortable in the position I was in. I was getting to perform "Swan Lake" and Juliet in "Romeo And Juliet" and the lead in "The Nutcracker" and "Giselle" and the lead in "Coppelia." And it was like, this is what I'm doing this for, to be an artist on the stage, to be up there and have an audience come and see me and have a Black and brown audience come and see me. So once the promotion actually happened, I think I was a little numb. It had been such a long journey. I really think it took about a year before it really sunk in and I could recognize the - how necessary it was for me to have that title, how necessary it was for the Black community to have a principal dancer that could eventually open doors for more dancers of color to come.

GROSS: What were some of the pressures that came with being the first Black principal ballerina with the ABT?

COPELAND: It was really an interesting time for me, you know? So when I was making these debuts in big, you know, leading roles - for most dancers, you know, you'll make your debut, you know, on a Wednesday matinee, and some people will come, and there probably won't be a critic there at all to, you know, critique your show or talk about it. And I had the exact opposite experience. Every time I was making a - you know, making a debut and in a role, "The New York Times" was there. There were blogs and people writing, you know, will Misty succeed? And if she doesn't, what does that mean for her career? What does that mean for the African American dance community? So there was a lot of added pressure outside of just being an elite athlete in - at American Ballet Theatre and all that it takes to perform these roles, which is extremely pressure-filled and difficult.

GROSS: Well, let me give an example of something that you faced. When you were performing in Singapore in the role of - I think it was "Swan Lake"? And there's, like, 32 fouetts (ph)...

COPELAND: Fouettes, yes.

GROSS: Fouettes, thank you - that you're supposed to do in that, and you did fewer than that. You didn't do all 32.

COPELAND: Right.

GROSS: I should also say, I think by that time you had a lot of leg pain from an injury. So somebody, like, filmed that part on their phone, put it on YouTube, and really tried to take you down as a result.

COPELAND: Right.

GROSS: And you actually responded. So we - before we get to your response and your reaction to all of this, explain to those of us who don't really follow ballet what a fouette is compared to, say, a pirouette.

COPELAND: OK. So the 32 fouettes has become this technical feat that is expected in certain ballets - "Le Corsaire," "La Bayadere," "Don Quixote," "Swan Lake," in some cases and depending on the choreographer, "The Nutcracker." So it is a pirouette, where you are rotating on one leg. But in between the rotation, you have a whipping motion of the leg. So it's in passe, which we call it, where the toes are touching the supporting leg, the standing leg that you're turning on. And your whipping motion allows you to continue rotating. So you're supposed to rotate 32 times consecutively, you know, without putting that leg down. So you're consistently on one leg for 32 rotations. You're not expected to move from this - I guess, the size of a dime. You're literally spinning on a dime 32 times. And this - what makes it so difficult is...

GROSS: On your toes.

COPELAND: On your toe - wearing pointe shoes, on your toe. But what makes it even more difficult is that this comes - typically, you know, it's in the coda, we call it, which comes at the end of, you know, a three- or four-act ballet. So you've already been dancing for hours, and it's kind of the big finale. But it's become the norm to do the 32 fouettes. And performing them on that injured leg, you know, where I ended up having stress - six stress fractures in that leg and a plate screwed into my tibia, it was even more difficult to do. And I was in a lot of pain. So all of that was happening when I was performing the 32 fouettes.

GROSS: So when you didn't do all 32 and someone put this up on YouTube and then condemned you for it...

COPELAND: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And questioned, you know, your - I think they said that the American Ballet Theatre should be ashamed to have you. And you decided to write a long response and post it. What were some of the things you wanted to say in response to the criticism?

COPELAND: You know, I've - I don't know how savvy I am with social media, but I'm very honest. But I thought this was, like, a learning lesson - No. 1, to share a little bit of history about the ballet and about that step in particular and about the evolution of it, about, you know, the fact that we're human beings and that we have feelings as well and that it's not fair, you know, to - first of all, to step into this sacred space, the theater, and film someone where you're not supposed to be filming. And, you know, I just thought the whole thing was done in poor taste.

And so, you know, what I wanted to say was that that's, you know, one person's feelings about my performance. And this is a subjective art form. And everyone's, you know, entitled to their opinions but that we have a responsibility when we go on stage. And it's a - it takes a lot to have the courage and the talent to get up there and do what we do and that, you know, it's not always about these technical feats, that, you know, we're not a sport. We're not, you know, performing or competing in the Olympics. This is an art form, and everyone has their own interpretations. And not everyone is expected to be exactly the same.

And, yeah, you know, I just - I wanted it to be a positive message that I do belong at American Ballet Theatre and that not everyone has perfect performances. And even professionals make mistakes and have injuries. And I wanted to be transparent in that way.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Misty Copeland, and her new memoir is called "The Wind At My Back." We'll be right back after a short break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF IGOR STRAVINKSY AND COLUMBIA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINKSY'S "L'OISEAU DE FEU (1910 VERSION: II. LE JARDIN ENCHANTE DE KACHTCHEI")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Misty Copeland, who became the first African American woman to become a principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre, America's national ballet company. That was in 2015, the same year the company celebrated its 75th year. Her new memoir is about the pride and pressures of being a first in a world she describes as refusing to see Black people as equals capable of succeeding in traditionally, quote, "European art forms." Her memoir is also about her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, who in 1955 became the first Black ballerina to receive a contract with a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

I want to talk about what it's been like for you to dance on an injured leg. You found out eventually that you had six stress fractures in your tibia. Three of them were what's called black line fractures, meaning they were...

COPELAND: Yeah, dreaded black line.

GROSS: Dreaded black line. Yes. Right - meaning that they were almost full breaks through the bone. So that had to be, like, super painful. Then you ended up getting a plate - a steel plate...

COPELAND: Yeah, screwed into my tibia.

GROSS: ...Put in. How long were you dancing with those fractures, you know, not knowing exactly how serious they were?

COPELAND: I would say it was over the course of a year, probably, that it, you know, started - you know, in the beginning, I thought I had shin splints, and then they just kept getting worse and worse and worse. You know, it was in 2012. And it was the first time that I was given the opportunity to perform the lead in a classical work after, I guess it was maybe 12 years in the company, which is a long time to wait for that first role. And it was "The Firebird." So I knew how critical this moment was for my career. I knew that if I had gone to the artistic staff or the physical therapists and said, I'm in a lot of pain, they would have removed me from the rehearsals, and I would not have been able to perform. And I knew that had that happened, I wouldn't be given the opportunity again.

I was 29 years old at the time, which is very late to be doing your first principal role. I knew it wouldn't come again once I had healed. So I didn't tell anyone, and I pushed through in order to get on stage and prove that I was capable of being a principal dancer in a classical work - not in a contemporary or modern work but in a classical ballet. And the pain just became so severe by the time I got to the performance - I think it was - yeah, it was towards the end of the year, the end of our season at American Ballet Theatre, when I finally just couldn't do it anymore and the last performance I had before my surgery at Lincoln Center.

GROSS: How do you dance on stage and either spin on your bad leg or land on it without grimacing, without groaning? I mean, you're supposed to look like, oh, this is effortless, and you're in, like, major pain.

COPELAND: Yeah. I think any ballet dancer, any ballerina would tell you that it's a part of the training. You know, we are athletes, but we are also performers, and we're also artists. So we're not just training in, you know, in technique, in the ballet technique. But our goal is to tell the story, to make it look effortless, never to show any weakness or pain. When we go onstage, it's, like, another - it's a switch that turns on where you almost don't even feel the pain. There's so much adrenaline rushing through you. And you enter into this fantastical world of whatever ballet you're performing, whatever character you're portraying, and it's like you're no longer human. And that was the case even, you know, in that last performance, when - I could barely walk when I was offstage. But I get onstage and somehow could muster up all the energy and courage to keep jumping and performing.

GROSS: When you finally went to the American Ballet Theatre's orthopedic surgeon after dancing "The Firebird," you were told you may never dance again. That must have been a pretty terrifying thing to be told.

COPELAND: It was devastating. It was devastating to go from this extraordinary high of, you know, dancing at Lincoln Center, at the Metropolitan Opera House, seeing, you know, this massive poster on the facade of the Met, you know, just in front of the fountain of me as the Firebird, representing American Ballet Theatre in the spring season, performing to a sold-out show. More than half of the audience was Black and brown young people. And then two days later, I'm in the office, you know, of this orthopedic surgeon, and he's telling me, I don't think you're ever going to dance again. It was just like my whole world came crashing down.

And I felt, I think mostly like I was letting down the Black community. I felt like I had just cracked open this door for young Black and brown people to come in. And then if I wasn't going to step on that stage again, it was just going to be shut again. And I didn't know when I was going to ever see a Black woman get an opportunity like that again. So I did not accept those words. I - it was like my mind just went into, like, hyperdrive. And I was determined to find a doctor who could help me. So I must have seen seven or eight surgeons before I found the one that said, I see this injury in football players and basketball players that I operate on all the time, and I can help you. And I said, let's go.

GROSS: So this was the surgeon who put in the steel plate.

COPELAND: Yes.

GROSS: Does the steel plate hurt? Do you feel that it's there?

COPELAND: Yes. So while this procedure allowed for me to ensure that I wasn't going to injure myself again, I knew that I could jump on it and do whatever I needed to do, and it was protected. But, you know, I was onstage in - eight months after the procedure, which was very quick. So I have had pain from the moment I had the surgery. And it's been almost 10 years, I guess, since I had it. And I'm still in a lot of pain. Having my weight on one leg, on that - on the leg of my surgery or pushing off of that leg or landing on it, it causes tremendous pain. I recently had another procedure on it, maybe four months ago, I think it was, to have one of the screws removed 'cause we thought that would alleviate some of the pressure that was causing pain. I'm not quite sure if it's worked. I'm told to give myself a little more time.

GROSS: So what is the status of your dance career now?

COPELAND: I am still a principal ballerina with ABT, though I have, you know, been off, you know, starting with the pandemic. And then I had my son Jackson seven months ago. So I am still making my way back to the stage, and I'm hoping to be back on the stage with ABT in the fall/winter of 2023.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Misty Copeland, and her new memoir is called "The Wind At My Back." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MATTHEWS' "LA FILLE MAL GARDEE, ACT II: VARIATION OF LISE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Misty Copeland, who became the first African American woman to become a principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre, America's national ballet company. That was in 2015. Her new memoir is about the pressures and the pride of being a first. It's also about her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, who in 1955 became the first Black ballerina to receive a contract with a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Let's talk about your mentor, Raven Wilkinson, who you write about in your new memoir, the first Black dancer to get a contract with a major American ballet company. It was at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955. She had to not only deal with the pressures of being a first, she had to deal with the dangers of performing with an otherwise white dance company for predominantly white audiences in the South during legal segregation. And she was not only marginalized and forced to eat in the, quote, "colored" restaurants and stay in the, quote, "colored" hotels, she was in mortal danger. Tell us about one of the times that the Klan, the Ku Klux Klan, threatened her and in a really serious way.

COPELAND: For the most part, this was taking place when they were in Montgomery, Ala., when the company was on tour, the Ballet Russe. I'd say one of the scariest - oh, there were so many, it's hard to pinpoint one. I mean, I know there were times when she would be in the hotel room, and she could see crosses burning in the distance from her window. That must have been terrifying for her. But one story in particular - when the tour bus was making its way through the town, and I believe they were on their way to the theater and traffic was stopped, and some men kind of ran onto the tour bus. They're looking for the Black dancer that they knew was there in the company. And I can't imagine, you know, this feeling of just being trapped on this bus with no way out. And, you know, the dancers in the company were very protective over Raven and often would stand up and literally block her, you know, her body from being seen or touched. And eventually, I think the bus driver, you know, forced them off the bus.

But, you know, the fact that she was experiencing these things and then going straight to the theater and performing and kind of having to get into this different mental headspace and perform for an audience that was probably prejudiced against her being up there - maybe they didn't know she was up there. I don't know what it was, but I just can't imagine, like psychologically and emotionally what she was going through. And eventually, you know, it even got to her because she eventually left the company realizing that it was just - it was too much to take on on top of already, you know, being a performer.

GROSS: But then she couldn't dance in America. Like, she auditioned for several major dance companies, and they all turned her down. And she ended up having, I think, a 10-year career with the - was it the Dutch National Ballet?

COPELAND: Yes. Yeah, in Amsterdam.

GROSS: And then after 10 years with the Dutch National Ballet, she came back to the states and danced with the New York City Opera. So, like, what's some of the advice she gave you about, you know, being a first or facing racism after the, you know, extreme and dangerous racism and attacks that she faced?

COPELAND: You know, her messaging to me or the lessons I learned were never, you know, this kind of typical connection of, you know, I experienced racism and this is what I learned, so this is what you should do. You know, Raven would tell, you know, these stories and then kind of lead by example or her example was the ways that, you know, she explained how she responded to certain situations. So she never - it was never this kind of teacher-student relationship, though it was. It wasn't outwardly that way. You know, Raven was my friend, and she was like an older sister, and she would support me. But there were never, like, outward lessons that, you know, she was, like, wagging her finger at me and telling me I should do.

GROSS: You write that she helped you bridge the gap between Misty, the person, and Misty, the ballerina. What was the gap that you were experiencing?

COPELAND: She, you know, allowed me to kind of tie my experiences together. All that she had experienced and gone through and learned throughout the course of her life, she channeled into her performances. They made her a better person. And I think that was something that I hadn't quite done before I met her was connecting the person I was trying to become offstage to the person I was onstage, being comfortable in my skin and having a voice. I was always so comfortable with the voice that I had onstage. I was so shy and introverted in my everyday life, but when I would get onstage, I felt like I could be whoever I wanted to be. I could be so clear in what it was I wanted to say. I had confidence and grace, but I was terrified to have all of those things or maybe felt I didn't deserve to have all of those things in my everyday life. And she kind of showed me that I could be all of those things offstage as well and what an example I would be if I was all of those things when I was offstage as well.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is ballerina Misty Copeland. Her new memoir is called "The Wind At My Back." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHLOE FLOWER'S "A BALLERINA'S TALE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Misty Copeland, who became the first African American ballerina to become a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, America's national ballet company. Her new memoir, "The Wind At My Back," is also about her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, who in 1955 became the first Black ballerina to receive a contract with a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

As secure as you felt onstage, as at home as you felt onstage as a ballerina, you grew up with a lot of insecurity and sometimes without even a home. You describe your mother as having had a series of relationships with, you know, the wrong men. There were times when you didn't really have a home, when your mother would leave a relationship and you'd end up living in a cheap motel, with your six siblings and your mother sharing a room.

COPELAND: Five siblings.

GROSS: Five siblings, sorry. There's six total. Thank you. Yeah.

COPELAND: So from the time my family and I moved to Los Angeles, Calif., from Kansas City, Mo., when I was 2 years old, for the most part, there wasn't a consistent place that we were staying in, I would say, except for the time that my mother married her fourth husband that we actually had a home that we were living in. That was, like, the most stable our home environment was. That was between, I think, 7 and 9 years old. But it was after that divorce, so I - you know, 9, 10, something like that - that we were constantly moving from people that I didn't know that were friends of my mom's. We were staying on their couches. It was literally from, like, week to week, month to month that we were moving between people's homes or between motels. And so that was probably for, like, three years or something.

It was really difficult to be in school. And I felt that I couldn't get close to anyone because I was so embarrassed about my home situation. I didn't want anyone to know what was going on. Whether it was the relationships my mom was in, the abuse that was happening in the household, I just kept everyone at a distance because I didn't want them to know. And it was really stressful. It was really stressful to kind of keep up this facade of happiness.

And it wasn't until ballet came into my life that I started to feel that I could, like, be a person, a person in the world, like I could express myself. It was like I'd gone 13 years of my life without truly expressing what was inside of me or feeling comfortable in my skin. And it was ballet. And it was being in the studio, in the ballet studio, which felt so sacred. It felt so protective, and the same with the stage. I know it's, like, the opposite of what people would think of performing. You know, you're up there. And you're so exposed and naked. And I felt the opposite. I felt like I finally found this place of comfort for the first time in my life.

GROSS: You started dancing ballet with the Boys and Girls Club of America. And your teacher there, Cindy Bradley, really believed in you and your ability to become, like, a great dancer. And because, at the time, you were living at a motel that was, like, 13 miles away from school and from the Girls and Boys Club of America, she decided that you should stay at her place with her husband and young son during weekdays so you could get to both school and to your ballet classes easily, because your mother told you, it's too much - you're going to have to quit ballet, which you didn't want to do. How did that change your life, to be able to stay at your dance teacher's home, have her attention, have her be really devoted to you as her student and also become like a surrogate parent?

COPELAND: It was so different from anything I'd ever experienced in my life. You know, I was severely underdeveloped in every way, physically, mentally, emotionally. You know, I - there were - we had enough money to survive, barely, you know, when I was living with my mother. And, you know, what we were eating was not priority. It was just, you know, what can we afford? You know, something as basic as that - when I lived at Cindy's house, I started to develop physically because I was getting nutritious food. I was having conversations, you know, with Cindy and with her husband, conversations that I'd never experienced my entire life, you know? Being one of six children, there's - it's hard for, you know, my mom, who's working several jobs and just trying to survive, keep us off the street, you know, to have these intimate conversations with each one of us. I also just don't think it was really in her nature because of the way she was raised as well, you know, this lack of communication. And I was forced to do that at Cindy's house. And I grew and developed immensely in the three years that I lived with them.

It also was the first time I was in, like, a stable environment that wasn't chaotic, you know, that I could, like, hear myself think. It was peaceful, and I was - I could really just focus on the training, which is why I moved in with them, was to be able to - you know, to catch up on all the training that I missed out on by starting at 13 years old, which is late for - you know, in ballet standards because I would eventually go on to join American Ballet Theatre with only four years of training under my belt.

GROSS: I can't let you go without asking you about dancing with Prince. You danced with him in his "Welcome 2 America" tour. And when I say dance with him, I mean he was performing; you were dancing at the same time, kind of interpreting the music. And you danced on his piano. What did he tell you he wanted you to do and why he wanted you to do it, when he first asked you to perform with him?

COPELAND: He reached out to me. I must have been, like, maybe 26 years old. And he invited me to be in a music video of his. He just - he said that when - he had remade the song "Crimson And Clover," and he just could envision me dancing to it. So that was the first thing that I did. I - he flew me out to LA, and I improvised on the set. I, like, went straight to the set and improvised this choreography that - you know, he sat there watching and didn't really have much to say.

But we developed a beautiful friendship over the years. And he, you know, eventually would invite me to tour with him. And then, you know, the ultimate experience, though, was performing on his "Welcome 2 America" tour and - especially the performances at Madison Square Garden, to see the way that he worked his devotion to his craft and his eye for, you know, performance. And it was just an incredible experience.

But beyond, you know, performing with him, it was the conversations we had. We talked about Raven a lot. We, you know, talked about what it is to be the only. And, you know, he kind of changed my mindset and way of thinking where - you know, it was always kind of I'm alone. I'm isolated. There's no one in this company who looks like me. And he would say, well, that's incredible. You're - people are looking at you. You know how hard people have to work to be unique and different and stand out? And, you know, you have this power that a lot of people don't have and - you know, that you're surrounded by simply by the way you look or your body.

And I never thought of it in that way. And he just really changed the way that I looked at, you know, the power that I held rather than seeing it as a negative thing, like, you know, being Black in this European, white art form.

GROSS: Misty Copeland, it's just been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. And I wish you all good things when you return to the stage.

COPELAND: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Misty Copeland's new memoir is called "The Wind At My Back." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Michael Imperioli. In the new season of "The White Lotus," he plays a sex-addicted Hollywood producer vacationing in Sicily with his father and son. Imperioli is best known for his role on "The Sopranos" as Christopher Moltisanti. He published a book last year that's an oral history of the show based on his podcast, "Talking Sopranos." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I am Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES")

PRINCE: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, what's it going to be? Oh, baby, baby, baby, is it him? Or is it me? Don't make me waste my time, no. Don't make me lose my mind, baby. Baby, oh, baby, baby, can't you stay with me tonight? Baby, oh, baby, don't my kisses please you right? You were so hard find, yeah. Beautiful ones, they hurt you every time.

Paint a perfect picture. Bring to life a vision in one's mind. The beautiful ones always smash... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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