The prima ballerina talks to PEOPLE about her new picture book and her hope that the Black Lives Matter movement will amplify the voices of other dancers of color

By Sam Gillette
September 28, 2020 11:52 AM
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Misty Copeland
| Credit: Under Armour

Like most performance-based industries, ballet is suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. But prima ballerina Misty Copeland is still finding joy, this time with her new children's book.

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Copeland talks about the book, Bunheads, out Tuesday, which draws on her own life as a young ballerina. Copeland — who made ballet history as the first Black woman to become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre — also discusses the struggles that dancers are facing amid the pandemic, her dream of industry-wide change and her hope that other dancers of color will continue to speak out about their experiences.

"I come from Southern California and the dancers, the young students, were there to find joy," Copeland, 38, says of the experiences that influenced the book. "There are beautiful relationships and friendships and mentorships that happen in a dance studio, [which are an important part] of being an artist or being a dancer. I don't feel that's often what's told or depicted when it comes to ballet and dance in particular."

Bunheads, which will be published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, follows a young Misty, who auditions for the ballet "Coppélia" — even though she's never danced before! Misty overcomes her fears with the help of her new-found dancing friends and together they have a beautiful performance. Copeland explains that "Coppélia" was one of the first ballets she ever learned.

The principal dancer, who first had the idea for Bunheads five years ago, decided to work with illustrator Setor Fiadzigbey specifically because his artwork reflected the spirit of her story.

Credit: Penguin Young Readers

RELATED VIDEO: Misty Copeland On Changing the Face of Ballet

"[Setor] was drawing these superhero type of comic-book-looking characters. And I thought this was really fascinating because I think of ballet dancers and dancers like superheroes," Copeland explains. "He's capturing the energy of what I see for this book. I feel like he brought it to a new level."

The dancer says it was imperative that the book include all kinds of dancers, with a range of body types, ages, races and sexes.

"You don't have to look the same. You don't have to be the same age. You don't have to be the same gender to connect with people and to learn something from another person," she says. "That's why I wanted to have such a vast variety of characters. I love that there's a little boy, Wolfie, in it because I think that it's important for boys to see themselves in dance and in ballet."

This isn't the first time Copeland has pushed for inclusivity — both in her writing (she also published a kids' book, Firebird, in 2014) and the ballet industry.

"That's all just a part of my DNA, in my professional life and in my personal life," Copeland says about pushing for diversity. "Not that I wanted to keep shoving it in people's faces with everything I do, but it's naturally, mechanically a part of me."

She says the need to advocate for herself and other dancers of color hasn't changed because of the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead, her beliefs have been amplified.

An interior page from Bunheads
| Credit: Penguin Young Readers

"It's been an interesting time with the Black Lives Matters movement," Copeland says. "My stance and my beliefs have not changed because of it. But I think that it's allowing for people to hear dancers of color in a different way."

"I feel like this was kind of a moment for me to step back [because] I think more dancers of color feel comfortable now" to share their experiences, she explains. "Or people want to hear their experiences rather than before, where it was like, to succeed and to thrive in the ballet world [dancers of color] tried to go under the radar for as long as possible. Don't make any noise and, just try and get in and be representation in a silent way."

"I've been so fortunate that I've had incredible platforms to be able to share my voice," she continues. "So I will continue the mission and the fight for as long as I'm alive, while also giving others support to do the same."

Copeland is continuing the fight, but she's also navigating the pandemic. It's been a "difficult time" for dancers, she says.

"It's impossible to be at the level that we professional dancers need to be," Copeland says. "There aren't very many dancers that are making what an NBA player or an NFL player makes, so they can have the facility in their home to be able to keep up the training."

Artwork from Bunheads
| Credit: Penguin Young Readers

She says it will take a long time for dancers to return "to the level of shape that we need to be in to be back on a stage, in whatever form that is." Despite the difficult times, Copeland hopes that the pandemic will affect the performance industry in a positive way. She says the industry has an opportunity to change so that dance can "reach more people."

"I feel like we're at such a pivotal moment that can seem distressing. But, at the same time, I feel like it's like starting over and I'm really excited for what's to come," Copeland says. "I know that sometimes this is what has to happen: Tragedy occurs in order to see what's possible and to rebuild... I think that this is a moment to redefine and rebuild and recreate what dance and theater is."

As for dancers themselves, they're survivors, she says. "Dancers are really good with making do and being creative," Copeland explains. "The positive thing out of this is that dancers will survive and thrive through anything."

Listen to the prima ballerina speak about Bunheads, out Sept. 29, at one of her upcoming virtual book events: