"I never knew it was going to get to this level. There are a lot of times when I wish it wasn't so much. But I wanted this type of exposure for the dance community," says Misty Copeland

By Kathy Ehrich Dowd
Updated August 14, 2015 11:45 PM
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Credit: Dennis Leupold/ESSENCE

Misty Copeland broke barriers earlier this year when she became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre – and she’s taking her pioneering status seriously.

“I wanted it to be an opportunity for me to educate people and get them to become ballet fans and to educate them on what it means to be a Black dancer – a Black ballet dancer,” she tells Essence for its September cover story.

She currently mentors about a dozen promising dancers and sits on the board of Project Plié, which the ABT founded in 2013 to help diversify American ballet companies.

Copeland, 32, had a dramatic introduction to ballet. Growing up in a two-room motel suite with her mother and five siblings, she took her first ballet class at a local Boys & Girls Club at age 13, and her teacher was so stunned by her talent that she had Copeland move in with her as she nurtured her gift.

“I never knew it was going to get to this level. There are a lot of times when I wish it wasn’t so much. But I wanted this type of exposure for the dance community,” she told the magazine.

In a behind-the-scenes interview arranged by Essence, Copeland also sat down with a 13-year-old African-American dancer to answer questions and share some pearls of wisdom with the young dancer – lessons she learned the hard way.

“It’s really just having a lot of confidence and belief in yourself,” she explained. “Everyone hears no at some point … I think it’s possible to find the right place to be and to fit in and to hear the word yes.”