Many girls dream of being a ballerina when they are young. Few actually make it as professional ballet dancers. And, those who look different than the accepted “norm” are even rarer. That’s why Misty Copeland is such an amazing example of talent, perseverance, and empowerment. It was such a welcome surprise to find out that we would be interviewing her during our press trip for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms! She’s such an inspiration!
Misty Copeland — Ballerina Princess in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Okay, I will warn you that this interview is pretty long. But, she just had so much good stuff to say and was so inspiring that I thought it would be a disservice to you to not include it all.
Copeland was surprised to get the call from Disney since she’s not an actress. But, she did understand the connection of the movie with ballet.
It was a really organic fit and they were just really open about letting me kind of take the lead. They’re like, “We don’t know ballet. This isn’t our world so please teach us. We are going to trust in you and that we’re going to have the right team.” So they allowed me to choose a choreographer and I selected Liam Scarlett…
I think when they brought the idea to me, it was based on the Nutcracker Book, it wasn’t based on the Nutcracker ballet so there was no ballet in this version of the story. So they were like, “We can’t do the Nutcracker and not have ballet in it.” So, they kind of created this character for me, the Ballerina Princess, just as a way to have ballet in it. I’m kind of the storyteller. It’s a performance within the movie, there to share the story of the Four Realms and tell it to Clara. So it’s awesome!
You look so beautiful in your character poster. What was the process and what were your thoughts on how it all came together for you?
So we would be up, it was very early. It was like still dark outside and we would get to the set every day and be in the trailer. It was a long process. I want to say two hours or more to make sure the wig was like secure. There was some gadget that was in my costume or in my wig or something that was magnetic and so the spotlight would follow me wherever I went because of this thing in my costume. But, then I was dancing with this thing in my costume so it was crazy to have this on. But, yeah, with the wig, all of those pins, and then I had that on my head for like 10 hours. If I had a 30-minute break to nap, it was just like, “I’m sleeping in the wig.” It was really painful.
The process of the makeup. It was a lot of work. Then, you have to make it look exactly the same every single day that you go in. So, it’s very detailed, not as glamorous as people probably assume it is. But, it was amazing to see like how it came out and how magical it made me feel.
What kind of a message do you want girls to take away from this movie?
I think that this film couldn’t be a more amazing platform for ballet to be introduced to the masses, to those people that maybe do not feel welcome to step through the doors of the Metropolitan Opera House. Everyone goes to the movies. It’s a place you can dream and fantasize and so forth.
I think, first of all, for the cast to be as diverse as it is, is amazing. For this next generation to see a brown ballerina in this Nutcracker film, it will live on and, hopefully sooner than maybe 30 years, that you’ll be able to say, “Oh, that’s what a ballerina looks like.” But it’s not like, “That’s a black ballerina. It’s so rare.” That, to me, is just so incredible and empowering. I think that’s something that Disney movies have done for me growing up. For them to see representation and possibilities and limitless opportunities for themselves. That’s what I hope they take away.
Do you hope to do more movies to showcase your ballet?
I do have a production company, it’s called Life in Motion, like my memoir. We haven’t done anything yet, it’s a long process. But, I think that I want to be able to be an authentic voice for dance in this medium. It’s difficult to watch dance films and not always feel like it’s truly representing who we are. So, I feel like that’s a responsibility that I have and want to do that in the future.
This your second doll with Barbie. How did you feel about the first one and the second one?
The second one came along so fast. Before I knew it, I was like, “Oh, okay. It’s here. There’s another one!” But, the first one was a lot of work. I was very involved. I made it very clear that I wanted it to be a true representation of me and what I stand for. Like, don’t just take Barbie’s body and paint her brown. I want her to have boobs. I want her to have thigh muscles and calves. I want her nose to be wider than Barbie’s and the lips to be full…
[Omitted a candid discussion about breast size… 😜]
We already had the mold when we did this one for my character in the Disney film. So, all they had to do was put a white wig on her, put a little dress on her, and I think to change the makeup a little bit. But, it is so incredible. Something that I loved my whole life. I mean, my mom had to take the barbies away from me because she was like it’s not okay at this old. So, this has to end. But, yeah, it’s amazing to have a brown ballerina Barbie that somebody can see themselves in.
Misty Copeland — Inspiring a New Generation of Ballet Dancers
What was it that made it “click” that this is what you wanted to do professionally?
The first ballet class I took was on a basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, California. I don’t want to say hated it, but it was not something I thought I was going to do. I think all the other kids were coming from underprivileged backgrounds like me and none of had danced and they were all older. I was 13. But, they all had their gear on. They had leggings or tights and I was in these baggy basketball shorts and socks. I was just like, “This just isn’t right. This just doesn’t feel right…”
I think it was the first time that I was taken on scholarship into the local ballet school. I put on the pink tights and I put on the leotard and I could see myself in front of the mirror. That’s when it clicked.
I felt beautiful for the first time in my life. I felt right. I don’t know if it was actual reality but, in my mind, being a lack young girl, being super skinny and long legs and these massive feet and big hands and little head, of which everything was just wrong in the real world. And, I stepped into the studio and it was like, “Oh! Everything is exactly right! These are the proportions!” I was just like, “Whoa!” It gave me such power and confidence I had never experienced before.
What would you tell young girls at that age (around 13 years old), not only about following their dreams but overcoming adversity?
It’s hard for young people to accept or ask for support or guidance. That’s just kind of been my saving grace with everything. We don’t have, especially as young people, we don’t have all the tools to push through and get going through whatever it is when we have an obstacle.
But, I think it’s important to first to have belief in yourself. Like true belief that like you don’t have to look like the person next to you. That what you see on Instagram is not necessarily beauty just because that’s what you pushed in your face. I think being an individual is so much more beautiful and being unique. I just try and tell young people to own that and be confident in who you are.
What advice would you give a girl who desires to be a professional dancer but is told she is starting late?
I think the majority of the greatest ballet dancers all started after the age of 13, which is kind of crazy. I think that it’s proof that it’s not about that. I understand the reason that they like to start you out before you hit puberty. It’s so that they can really mold the body and so that it becomes a second nature. It’s so detailed, the ballet technique, that once you get to the level of a professional, there are so many other things you’re thinking about that you can’t be thinking about the technique of it.
You’re learning choreography for up to ten ballets in a week that you’re performing, you’re growing as an artist, becoming a character. There’s just so much to think about. That’s why we start so young. But, it’s possible. I think that it’s about what you do with the time that you’re in the studio. I was taking 3-4 classes a day, just trying to like catch up.
But, I think with the right support and the right will and push. If you’re working with a teacher that’s telling you that you can’t, then you need to go somewhere else. It’s possible to be anything you want to be if you have someone that supports you or you have representation in someone you can look at that’s done that. I think that’s enough.
What could make ballet more available to all communities?
It’s such a difficult thing to do and I’ve been trying to do it for my entire career. I helped to start a diversity initiative through American Ballet Theatre in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America called Project Plié. I’ve worked with so many different organizations like one that I hold really dear to my heart, MindLeaps in Rwanda, and it kind of allows me to see a structural thing that I can then bring back to the States.
I think it’s about going to those communities and making those communities feel comfortable. It’s not like, again in Rwanda, it’s not about bringing in some white teachers and being like, “We’re gonna save you, black people.” I think it’s about training the people that are there in those communities so they can teach their communities. That’s a huge step that we can take in this natural growth of diversifying dance.
Misty Copeland is such a great example of someone who worked hard for their dreams and pushed through despite all the barriers set up before them. She’s an inspiration to young girls, especially those of color, to keep going when others say you can’t and to work even harder to prove them wrong. See Copeland’s performance in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms today!
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is in theaters now!
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