Ramona Rosales
November 10, 2018 10:00 AM

As ballerina Misty Copeland looks back at her journey to success, there is one person in particular who stands out in helping her achieve her dream: Her very first ballet teacher Cindy Bradley.

When Copeland was just 13 years old growing up in San Pedro, California, she was the captain of her school’s dance team.

“A teacher named Cindy suggested I take a ballet class at the Boys and Girls Club where I was a member,” Copeland, 36, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I took that class on the basketball court.”

When Bradley saw Copeland dance for the first time, she instantly knew she was watching something magical unfold.

“It was like an electrical shock went through my body, and I just knew that there was something really special about her,” Bradley tells PEOPLE. “I felt like I had to train her.”

Copeland remembers Bradley calling her a “prodigy,” but she didn’t know what the word meant at the time.

“I had no real interest in ballet,” says Copeland. Yet dancing made her feel “empowered and like I had a voice.”

Within a couple weeks, Bradley offered her a full scholarship to come train at her dance school, the San Pedro Dance Center.

Copeland, who was one of six siblings and raised by a single mother, ended up training with her, but not without overcoming significant obstacles.

“It ended up being too much on my mother and family,” said Copeland, adding that unbeknownst to Bradley, the young dancer was living in a motel at the time. “My mom said it was just too much getting me back and forth to class, so she told me I had to quit.”

“Cindy was devastated when I told her I couldn’t dance,” she recalls. “She then asked to drive me home. I gave her the address and when she pulled up to the motel she was in complete shock.”

That very same night Bradley asked Copeland’s mother if she could come live with her and continue to train.

“My mom let me,” she says, “and it completely changed my world.”

For more on Misty Copeland and the teacher who changed her life, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE out Friday.

For the next two years, Copeland lived with Bradley, her husband and the couple’s young son in “the most stable environment I had ever been in,” she shares. “She gave me the tools I didn’t even know I didn’t have, just simple communication skills besides what she gave me as a dancer.”

Adds Bradley: “I couldn’t just leave her there. I couldn’t leave the most gifted person I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Although Copeland went on to join the American Ballet Theatre — and currently stars in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms — she always remembers where she came from.

David Parry/PA Images/Getty

“I credit her for all the things I’ve gotten the opportunity to have because she believed in me,” she says of her former teacher. “She took a huge leap.

When Copeland was recently in Rwanda working with MindLeaps, an organization that uses dance to empower at-risk young people, it brought back memories of what Cindy did for her years ago.

“I will often send her a text to thank her for inspiring me to feel like I could do that for others,” she says. “She showed me that even the smallest gesture can change someone’s life.”

And when Bradley looks at Copeland’s success, she says she feels “so proud.”

“It’s a true fairy tale,” Bradley says. “Everything I had hoped for and dreamed for her happened.”

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