From her outstanding body of work, her unwavering grace and exuding emotion every time her pointe shoe touches the stage, Misty Copeland epitomizes everything classical about the art of ballet and more. 

“Each day, I can’t help but feel so unbelievably grateful and honored to carry this title,” Misty Copeland says of being a principal dancer for one of the most renowned ballet companies in the world. “It’s surreal and something that probably won’t sink in fully until I’m done dancing.”

The 34-year-old, who was born in Kansas City, but raised in Los Angeles, understands that she is in an incredibly unique position to be in a company like the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT), of which she says is the “first company in ballet history to present such an array of different talent and unify dancers from all over the world.” And as the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in ABT’s 75-year history, she is more than humbled to thank others for helping her get there.

“I feel like I am a vessel for all of the black dancers who have paved the way for me to get here. It’s crazy that it’s finally happened and even more so that it is me,” she says of the once-in-a-lifetime experience. “It’s impossible to quantify one’s talents in such a subjective art form. With that said, I know that I am here because of my work ethic, perseverance and unique interpretation of ballet.”

What’s in a name? Copeland as Juliet in Romeo & Juliet (Photo by Gene Schiavone)

That dogged determination has earned Copeland lead roles in Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and The Firebird, as well as Don Quixote and Giselle, which she is currently performing for the spring schedule. Copeland has been dancing professionally for 16 years and goes through 10 pairs of pointe shoes per week. Having graced the stage in dozens of other productions, she says that as of now, Juliet is her favorite role.

“I will dance many more roles throughout my career so I know that this will be ever-changing, but one thing I’ve learned over the past two years is that I thrive in story ballets,” says Copeland. “I feel my true gift is my ability to tell a story through the ballet technique rather than simply being a technician and executing steps. I really need a story to elevate my performance.”

Like any professional athlete, Copeland puts a great deal of time and effort into maintaining a healthy body and lifestyle through eating well, exercising and, of course, dancing. Her third book, Ballerina Body, hit shelves earlier this spring and details how a healthy lifestyle is possible to achieve without dieting or fitness fads.

“It’s a lifestyle choice that will fuel you and help you feel your best, not just look your best. In Ballerina Body, I share bits of my experiences and give women a different insight into what it is to be your healthiest self and create your own version of a ballerina body,” says Copeland, who also includes her own recipes, words of encouragement, as well as different exercises that she and some of her personal coaches have developed that follow the basics and structures of the ballet technique. “It’s amazing to have an opportunity to share my journey through both books (Copeland’s first book, Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, debuted in 2014). It’s teaching people beyond the ballet world and giving them hope.”

With a physically demanding career, Copeland has come back from some serious injuries. When she cannot express herself on stage, she says she continues to “dance in her mind and heart.”

“When that feeling dies, it’s impossible to come back. Your emotions and psychological state are incredibly tied to your ability to perform and heal,” she says. “You just have to believe that the work you’re doing to recover will work.”

Life in Motion (Photo by Gregg Delman)

Having single-handedly changed the face and landscape of ballet, Copeland says that she does not sit back and reflect on what that honor means, simply because it is such a big responsibility to own. Being the modest person she is, Copeland instead expresses her gratitude to others before her.

“I know that my voice and visibility has accomplished a lot, but it’s not without the work that has been done for generations, the efforts of other black dancers, and the support from the black community to make the huge effort to get it, support and force that change,” she says, advising others who want to follow in her perfectly pointed footsteps that all they need is hard work. “Know that your background and circumstances don’t define you. You can create your own journey to happiness and success. Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to accept guidance.”

Always aware of her fortunate opportunities in life, Copeland is committed to giving back in any way she can. Her charitable endeavors include MindLeaps, an organization that uses dance and the arts to give hope to street kids in Rwanda and provide them access to a better education with the goal of getting them scholarships to attend boarding school and break the cycle of poverty in their families. She also has a special place in her heart for Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which became like a second family to her.

“I took my first ballet class there at 13 through a diversity scholarship search,” says Copeland, who has been a spokesperson and ambassador for several years. “I also helped to start a diversity initiative with the clubs and ABT called Project Plié, a program similar to the one that brought me to ballet.”

Dancer, public speaker, spokesperson, role model, author and one of Time’s most influential people, Copeland chooses to exert her powerful influence the best way she knows how: by being her best self and in that vein, being true to who she is, even if that means sharing her successes as well as struggles.

“It’s important to be honest with children. Let them know it’s not easy work to get to where you want to be, but that they’re not in it alone,” she says. “Most importantly, don’t give up. Every day is a chance to start again and be better.”

The soloist performs in Coppélia (Photo by Naim Chidiac)

The star ballerina continues to dip her hand into a variety of ventures. She is an Under Armour Athlete and also has partnerships with Dannon Oikos Greek Yogurt and Seiko. No matter what her future holds, Copeland has maintained that ballet will be at the forefront of her life.

“That work [dance] comes first always. I wake up every morning with the goal of being a better, more articulate dancer, a better and more expressive and true artist,” says Copeland, who feels that dance is a means of communicating in an otherworldly way. “It goes beyond what words can communicate. It makes you feel, breathe, sing and live, all through movement. I believe that my story goes beyond ballet. It’s a story of fight, perseverance, support and overcoming obstacles.”

While it may seem like she is pirouetting through life, Copeland takes in every minute of her real life fairy tale dream. Even with her edge and take notice attitude, Misty Copeland is still the perfect prima ballerina that everyone loves to watch dance across the stage, long after the curtain closes.

(Featured photo above by Henry Leutwyler)