One of the most important responsibilities of the ballet world today is to empower young dancers who don’t feel like they belong, Misty Copeland said at a discussion on Monday.
A soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, Copeland spoke as part of the Lewis Center’s Masters of Dance series, which features professional dancers and choreographers in a series of events at the University in January and February.
"I wish people would ask, ‘How does it feel to be alone?’ Because there’s really a history of there not being much diversity in the ballet world," Copeland said.
She explained that when she first joined American Ballet Theatre, she wasn’t really aware of how she felt about being the only black female dancer on the roster, but things gradually built up as she spent more time in the company.Copeland was the only African-American member of the company for 10 years.
"By my third year in the company, I had this resentment, and I really didn’t know where it was coming from," she said. "I had to really step back and say, ‘Do I belong here?’ Now, after all this time, I’m glad to say that I don’t feel lonely."
One of the most common remarks she heard in her first few years as a dancer was, "You don’t seem black," she said.
"It’s hard to exist in a place where you want to forgive these people for being ignorant, but you also don’t want to let it slide," she said.“Ballet shaped me into the person I am today. I wouldn’t be as articulate, I wouldn’t be as open and I wouldn’t be able to communicate the way I do about art without ballet."
Copeland also said she dealt with binge eating disorder when she was younger and she did not hit puberty until she was already a professional dancer.
"I never really saw what I was doing as a disorder," Copeland said."It went on for about six months or so, and I felt like I had to be someone else in order to fit into the ballet world."
When asked how she maintains a positive body image, Copeland replied that she doesn’t think of herself differently from how she has thought of herself throughout her career, and has remained comfortable with herself throughout.
Copeland also discussed her favorite roles, how she recovers from injuries and her daily routine, which normally starts at 10:15 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m., normally without a break for lunch.
In the United States, professional dancers are still viewed as inferior to professional athletes, and dancers are not getting the same opportunities as professional NFL and NBA players, she said.
“In America, you say you’re a football player and people applaud you," Copeland said. “Ballerinas are strong too and people view us as kind of secondary, like we just twirl around."
Copeland mentioned that in recent years, people have started to view dancers differently, noting her own endorsement for Under Armour as an example.
"I think people are starting to look at dancers in a different way," she said. “I don’t think you can say that we’re just athletes, or that ballet is a sport. But we’re definitely athletes."
Copeland said that she deals with the publicity by always remembering to put her career first.
"I realize that I wouldn’t be where I am now, I wouldn’t have the endorsements, if I weren’t this dedicated to dance," she said.
Copeland said that she wants to be a role model for youth who may feel like they don’t have a place in the ballet, and said Project Plié, a joint program by the American Ballet Theatreand the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America designed to bring ballet training to members of the clubs, was a good example of community service within the ballet community.
Copeland concluded by saying she draws the most pleasure from inspiring young dancers and seeing them succeed.
"WheneverI can sit down with a young dancer and hear their experiences, guide them, give them motivation and just watch them grow, that’s what makes me happiest," she said.
Co-sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University Ballet and the Center for African-American Studies, the discussion was hosted by Tina Fehlandt, a lecturer in dance at the University andtook place in McCosh 50 at 4:30 p.m. on Monday.
Following the talk, Copeland participated in a signing of her 2014 book, "Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina"