Book Review: Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, By Misty Copeland

In a different lifetime, I’d have fancied myself a ballerina. An elegant swan in Swan Lake or the Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker. When I close my eyes some days, I imagine myself an elegant dancer with a perfect dancer’s body whipped into perfect shape by my years of training. But, alas.

I enjoy the ballet very much. I love everything about classical ballet. The art form itself, its beautiful clean lines, the rigor and discipline of the dancers, the hours and hours of rehearsals required to perform their routines perfectly. It’s an art form which requires the artist to constantly improve their craft, regardless how long they’ve been dancing. It’s beautiful and breathtaking to watch. An accomplished ballet dancer is to make very difficult and intricate dance moves look easy and graceful.

Classical ballet is one of the traditional art forms which was not forced to undergo dramatic change in terms of its inclusivity. Classical ballet was and is to a certain extent, an art form dominated by white people, white culture and especially the white woman. In fact, it’s one of the rare art forms where women represent the art more so than the men. But it’s only a specific kind of woman. A skinny white girl with the right proportions from head to toe, literally. Ballet dancers have been dismissed for eyes being set too close or too wide apart or the curvature of their feet not meeting the exacting standards of the artistic director. She cannot be too tall or too short. All of this is grounds for dismissal, irrespective of her technique and talent. Uniformity is paramount but within that uniformity, a great ballerina can stand out and perform a great role when called upon to do so. It’s a hard balance to strike, hence only 1% of all ballerinas ever make into a top classical ballet company. Competition is stiff and unrelenting. There is always someone ready to pounce on a ballerina’s position in a dance company.

Ideally, a ballet dancer begins her training by 5 years old (if not earlier), and if she’s serious, she is to continue her classes and training through her preteens, teenage years and starting at 16 years old, she begins auditioning for major classical ballet companies, hoping to land a spot in the Corp de Ballet (similar to the chorus girls on Broadway) and dance her way up from there. The goal for every ballet dancer, male or female is to be principal dancer. They get the pick of the plum roles every season and their faces grace the billboards. It’s an honor and privilege that has to be earned, there are no shortcuts but blood, sweat and tears. To be a prima ballerina is the ultimate prize for a ballerina’s hard work and sacrifice.

The world of ballet, besides being very white, is also elitist. It’s not elitist in the sense where in order for someone to be a ballet dancer they need to come from a lot of money or a prominent family (like one would if they were to be an equestrian, polo player or cricket player), though it wouldn’t hurt. But it’s elitist in the sense that to be considered a ‘good’ ballerina, one’s got to look the part on stage and off. A ballerina’s Swan Queen persona needs to be maintained at all times. She needs to be graceful, well spoken and light on her feet on stage as well as off. A ballerina is not just a job title, it’s a persona. And it’s a persona which is adopted from the elitist European culture. There are certain expectations of a ballerina and she must maintain that reputation if she is to be successful and have a long career. She becomes her art and her manners and deportment must reflect her art.

To be a dedicated ballerina is not cheap either, especially if one starts at a very young age. Though there are lots of scholarships on offer from different elite ballet companies, they are reserved for advanced dancers and are given only to the most talented and promising dancers. It doesn’t require parents to be millionaires to train a young dancer but they do need some means and connections. And just like one often hears about training for elite olympic athletes, it’s a family effort. The whole family makes sacrifices for the one person.

In the backdrop of all this comes Misty Copeland, a newly promoted principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, one of the top classical ballet companies in the world. She is an unlikely ballerina because she is none of the things described above. According to her own words in her newly released documentary ‘A Ballerina’s Tale’, she says her upbringing for most of her childhood was considered ‘underprivileged’. She had no access to the fine arts, she had never heard of ballet until she was 13 years old when it was recommended by her drill team instructor to attend a free ballet class being offered at the San Pedro Boys and Girls club. She is not white, she’s black, she didn’t come from a lot of money and for the Copeland family, being a ballerina is about as far fetched as being the first woman president (of any race). It was totally out of her realm or awareness.

Copeland is one of six children being raised by a single mother. The family’s fortunes depended on who her mother was married to or was dating at the time. When she had a husband, things were better, when she didn’t, things were rough. Misty was the fourth child from her mother’s first marriage, her mother married twice more and had two more children. Growing up, Misty felt like she was lost in the din of six children all trying to fight for their mother’s attention, which was scant on offer due to her exhaustion of constantly working to provide for her six children. Their mother was loving and fiercely protective, but made some poor choices in men as they were growing up.

“Through movement, I found my calling. Through ballet, I found my voice” – Misty Copeland

Misty’s story is not about going from rags to riches or even triumph over circumstance. It’s about following your intuition, grabbing an opportunity of a lifetime when presented with it and running with it, trying to make good come of it, even if every thought in your head is telling you to sabotage it. Using your gut to make split second decision even though you know everyone in your family may be against you. Misty had the foresight to see the mistakes of her mother and is determined not to repeat them.

When Misty attended her first ballet class at age 13 inside a school gym, she had no clue what ballet was except it was a form of dance. Her teacher Cynthia Bradley had to coax a very shy Misty from the back of the gym to the front. From the very beginning, Cynthia Bradley saw untapped potential in Misty and believed she could be a great ballerina with the right training. Because Misty was already 13 years old she had to make up her mind right away if she was going to pursue ballet as her future profession and begin the rigorous training required. She agreed right away. Cynthia Bradley along with her husband Patrick was going to subsidize her classes (with help from others). She received her early ballet training on a full scholarship.

This was also a particularly difficult time in Misty’s home life. Her mother had gotten divorced again and the whole family was living in a motel in a seedy part of town. The whole family of 7 plus Misty’s mother’s new boyfriend lived in two rooms. This was the lowest they’d ever been. There were days where they put their coins together to buy food. And Misty readily admitted in her book and many interviews she was embarrassed about living in a motel with her family. When she discovered ballet, it was her way out and she knew it. It wasn’t as if she was trying to get away from her family; no, she loves them. It was her way out of poverty, this vicious cycle of marriage, children, divorce, re-marriage, more children, divorce again, the merry-go-around her mother has been on since she was first married at 20 years old. Also, ballet would be something that belonged to Misty only, she didn’t have to ‘share’ ballet with her siblings.

The Bradleys, besides being her ballet teachers, were her second parents, her guardians from the age of 13 to almost 16. When Misty’s mother could no longer cope with her young daughter taking so many hours of ballet classes, she decided to end her daughter’s nascent discovery and interest in ballet. Misty was heartbroken. When Cynthia Bradley found out Misty was living in a motel with her family, she told Misty’s mother that Misty could come live with her. She only has one young son and they lived in a comfortable seaside condo. And that night, with Misty’s mother’s consent, Misty packed her belongings and moved in with the Bradley family.

Another unexpected bonus from living with the Bradleys is Misty Copeland got to see what a loving functional family with two parents looked like. Patrick Bradley absolutely adores his wife Cynthia. She brought Misty back to their home without even asking him first. She literally showed up with a 13 year old Misty and told her husband and her young son Wolf, Misty was going to live with them. After the shock wore off, Patrick Bradley invited everyone to sit down for dinner and that was then end of the discussion. Misty’s mother never experienced such adoration from any of her husbands, they were never a functional family unit as there was domestic violence and addictions issues (on the part of the husband) with Misty’s mother’s marriages. She got to observe first hand what a loving family looks like. Misty was included in all of the activities of the Bradleys; shabbat dinners, synagogue attendance and other family gatherings. She felt welcome and accepted by the Bradleys.

Cynthia Bradley also demanded Misty speak her opinion when asked. She wanted Misty to know that her voice matters, even though her voice was drowned in a large noisy family due to her naturally shy nature, it matters. There were times where Cynthia Bradley wouldn’t let an issue rest until Misty have voiced her opinion. Misty is forever grateful for that.

However, as time wore on, Misty saw less and less of her family on weekends (which was agreed upon from the beginning) due to school and dance commitments. Misty’s mother felt that Misty was being taken away from her. When Misty was 15 and after she spent a summer at San Francisco Ballet for a summer intensive training program, her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna decided it was enough. Misty had to come back to live with her. DeLaCerna felt if Misty was good enough to get into San Francisco Ballet on full scholarship for a summer program with an offer of joining the company when she was ready, she could attend ballet class with any school or teacher, it didn’t have to be the Bradleys. Misty didn’t want to return to her mother and she wanted to continue her training with the Bradleys.

Things came to a head when Misty Copeland filed for emancipation from her mother. This is quite a common practice especially involving young athletes and dancers when they need to reside with their coaches or trainers. Misty claims she heard this from one her fellow classmates while she was at San Francisco Ballet and discussed it over with the Bradleys but she came to the decision on her own, her mother Sylvia DeLaCerna believes it was the idea of the Bradleys, so they can take Misty away from her permanently. Her mother not having the resources to fight the emancipation, places a call to the most indiscreet lawyer in America, Gloria Allred, who promptly convenes a press conference making the Bradleys look like child snatchers. It was traumatic for the shy and retiring Misty. In the end, the issue was settled when Misty withdrew her emancipation request with the demand the Bradleys be out of the picture and Misty is to continue her ballet training with another dance school. Everyone went on with their respective lives but Misty describes the forced, sudden separation with the Bradleys was traumatic and painful. Though Misty didn’t get what she wanted, the silver lining is her mother and her siblings knew she was serious about ballet, she was going to do this, and so they stayed out of her way.

Several controversies came from this. Firstly, one not helped by Gloria Allred is the notion that the Bradleys, a well-to-do white family is taking advantage of impoverished black single mother by taking her talented child away from her in more ways than one. Misty was accused of being ‘brainwashed’ by not just her mother but her siblings too as she progressed in her ballet training. As Misty became more refined in her tastes as a result of living with a white middle class family and participating in a classical artform, she became more alienated from her own family. Though Misty didn’t say it, she was accused acting ‘white’. The Bradleys claim they loved Misty like their own and she is a talented prodigy who Cynthia Bradley discovered, taught, nurtured and loved. What is Misty’s final analysis about all these accusations? About being brainwashed, though she said it wasn’t deliberate, she can see why her family felt that way and she concedes perhaps the Bradleys in an attempt to make her more presentable to the ballet world, she was a bit ‘brainwashed’. About filing for emancipation, Misty says a classmate at San Francisco Ballet told her about it and she did discuss it with the Bradleys, but the Bradleys left the decision to her. But Misty refutes the claim the Bradleys were taking advantage of her, she views them as her benefactors, people who took a chance on her and gave her the tools she needed to succeed and they, Patrick, Cynthia and Wolf Bradley, loved her and she loved them back.

Misty Copeland was eventually offered a place at her ballet company of choice, the American Ballet Theater, this was her first and only choice. It was not all smooth sailing from there either. When she hit puberty (a very delayed puberty as normal for dancers), her body changed. She went from being a lithe ballerina with the proportions of the ‘perfect‘ ballerina as prescribed by George Balanchine to a curvy and muscular dancer. This presented a ‘problem’ with the uniformity required of the dancers in the corp de ballet. She was told by the ballet company to ‘lengthen’ (ballet-speak for losing weight, as one couldn’t conceivably tell a girl who is 5′ 2″ and 105 lbs to lose weight) and that her muscular body type and full chest and hips is not acceptable to the standards of classical ballet. Misty ‘stood out’ for the wrong reasons, black, not lean enough and being the only black ballerina in a company of 80 dancers made her feel lonelier than ever. She nearly quit. But when she thought of quitting, she thought of her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna, who ran from every bad situation without a coherent plan in mind and the whole family ended up worse off than before. They went from one bad situation to another, compounding their problems. So, Misty dusted herself off, made some changes in her diet (she became a pescatarian) and requested a meeting with the artistic director articulating her wishes. Firstly, she will no longer paint her face white to match the rest of the girls, if she is to play a ‘ghost’ she’ll make herself pale but not white, the audience will get the hint. Second, she made it clear to Kevin McKenzie, the art director of American Ballet Theater, her desire is to be a ‘classical ballerina’, she wants to do all the big classical ballets, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, Firebird, La Bayadere, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker etc., and that’s her focus, not modern ballet, though she’s got no objection with those and they are equally good, but she prefers the classical ballets.

Unbeknownst to her, she spoke her mind, just like Cynthia Bradley taught her to do. She communicated her wishes, and Kevin McKenzie appreciated her candor and was glad he was informed of her goals. She didn’t run, she didn’t escape, she confronted her problems and communicated her wishes and she got what she wanted. She was promoted to soloist in 2007, the second black woman to attain that position and this year in June, she got promoted to principal dancer, just like Cynthia Bradley said she would be.

This book is a good read, a fun read for everyone, not just the ballet obsessed. Misty Copeland carved out a life for herself in New York City as a ballerina in one of the most prestigious classical ballet companies in the world. She achieved what seemed like the impossible by not running away from her problems, but by confronting them.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, By Misty Copeland

  1. This is such an inspiring story, thanks for the review on it, I’m definitely going to add it to my must-read list. Ballet is so important to me too and it is wonderful to know how much one can achieve with determination (even if you are only 13 years old), how determination can dissolve the barriers on your path and lead you to be whoever you want to be. It also makes me more positive about the world we live in, this is after all about so much more than the unlikely ballerina, it is about giving opportunities to develop the potential that is hidden behind those children that don’t get everything handed to them so easily. It’s Billy Eliot all over again! Glad to know that Ballet could be a potential key to achieving this.

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    1. Thank you for reading. I loved the book. It was as honest as she could be. She upset her mother due to her honest feelings. Though she never disparaged her mother and understood her flaws, her mother didn’t like being compared to her ballet teachers the Bradley’s.

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      1. Yes I understand, it must be a very difficult position to be in, particularly when you want to do what is best for your daughter which sometimes means keeping them close, except in this case it was letting her go, it must be very hard. Hopefully the result and her success will give them a second chance.

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