This Day In History: June 30

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Misty Copeland becomes the first African American woman promoted to principal dancer in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre, one of the leading classical ballet companies in the world.  

Growing up one of six siblings in an unstable home environment in Southern California, Copeland quickly earned prodigy status despite not starting ballet until the age of 13. Two years later, in 1998, she was winning awards and already receiving professional offers while in the throes of a custody battle between her mother and her ballet teachers, who were serving as her custodial guardians. 

In the very public legal fight, Copeland filed for legal emancipation while her mother Sylvia DelaCerna sought a restraining order against her daughter’s custodial guardians. Both sides dropped the matter after her mother pledged to never keep her daughter from dancing, and Copeland returned to live with her family and found a new teacher. 

In September 2000, after several intensive dance programs, 18-year-old Copeland was invited to join the ABT Studio Company, an elite, highly selective program for dancers still in training. A few months later, after she suffered a lumbar fracture, a doctor recommended she strengthen her bones by inducing puberty with birth-control pills. (Delayed puberty is common for ballerinas.) Her increased weight, bigger hips and larger breasts—which ran counter to conventional ballet aesthetics—hurt her self-confidence as she struggled with her body image and developed a binge-eating disorder.  

With the support of friends and her future husband, Copeland regained her confidence and her joy for dancing, while helping to broaden the image of ballet on stage. “My curves became an integral part of who I am as a dancer, not something I needed to lose to become one,” she wrote in her best-selling memoir Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. “I think I changed everyone’s mind about what a perfect dancer is supposed to look like.”  

Copeland received favorable reviews in her many performances in Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux, as Bianca in Othello, as Clara, the Princess in Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker, in Romeo and Juliet, in the title role in Ratmansky’s Firebird, and in the Odette/Odile double role from Swan Lake

Beyond the ballet stage, Copeland has extended her appeal with appearances in theater, television, music and film. In 2009, she improvised ballet movements in a music video for Prince’s cover of “Crimson and Clover,” the first single from his album Lotusflow3r. And in 2015, she made her Broadway debut in “On the Town.”  

The 2015 documentary film about Copeland that aired on PBS, A Ballerina’s Tale, challenged the image of white exclusivity in the world of classical ballet. The message in Firebird, her 2014 children’s picture book, sought to empower young people of color, and in 2021, she published Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy

In 2022, she founded the Misty Copeland Foundation to provide under-resourced communities with afterschool programs featuring affordable ballet training and health, wellness and mentorship.