"I felt this is a great opportunity for us to come together, but also for the world to see the beauty and the strength in coming together and supporting one another in times like this," Misty Copeland tells PEOPLE

By Lindsay Kimble and Claudia Harmata
May 13, 2020 12:09 PM
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Misty Copeland and 31 other ballerinas from 14 different countries have joined forces to help raise money for dancers who are experiencing financial difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Copeland, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, collaborated with fellow dancer Joseph Phillips and the non-profit Entertainment Industry Foundation to launch a virtual fundraising ballet performance they dubbed "Swans for Relief." Phillips, an old colleague and close friend of Copeland, reached out to her with the idea after several dancers in his company had been let go due to the pandemic and theater closures.

"I think 12 dancers from his company in the Philippines had been let go and literally had no way of surviving, and so it stemmed from that," Copeland tells PEOPLE. "He was like, 'How can we raise money for these dancers here in the Philippines,' and I said, 'Joseph, I think this is so much bigger than that ... we can really just unite the ballet world.'"

"I feel like most people from the outside don't realize how much of a family we are, no matter what company you're in, that it's not as competitive as it's depicted in film and media, but that we really are a union," she adds. "It's such a niche world and art form that I feel like we need each other, we need to support each other."

Continues Copeland, "I felt this is a great opportunity for us to come together, but also for the world to see the beauty and the strength in coming together and supporting one another in times like this."

Misty Copeland
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

From there, the duo used their connections to reach out to as many ballet communities around the world as they could, Copeland telling PEOPLE that she wanted "to get representation from every major company in every major city that really could use the help."

"The people that responded — all 31 of them — were just really excited and on board," she says. "It's just beautiful to see 14 countries represented. It's really beautiful, and the diversity that you see amongst the body types and skin color and race, it's so beautiful ... and that's not really what people imagine when they think of classical dance."

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Together, the 32 dancers each recorded themselves performing a famous ballet variation called the "Swan."

"It's over 100 years old," Copeland says, adding that Phillips chose that variation because he felt "this represents ballet to its core." Phillips then edited all the videos together into one beautiful continuous variation with all of the 32 dancers performing in it.

Attached to the video is a GoFundMe page, where Copeland says they hope to raise at least $500,000 that will be equally distributed among the companies that are represented in the video, as well as to other arts and dance organizations chosen by the participating artists.

Those funds will then be directly given to dancers within the companies and organizations who are not receiving paychecks right now, struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

"It's pretty devastating," Copeland says. "If theaters aren't open, then dancers aren't eating. Not to be harsh, but it's the reality for a lot of dancers."

A "silver lining" amidst this difficult time is how this experience will help propel ballet and performance art into the 21st century, Copeland adds.

"I feel like we're so far behind in ways that we could be reaching so many more people than we are by having an online virtual presence, which I feel like the ballet world is so far behind," she says. "I'm speaking more specifically from my own experience within the arts world in America, but I think that it's making us kind of step up and figure out how to still have some type of presence in the world."

"I think that the outcome is going to be that more people are going to see ballet, and hopefully that will create a new audience for the ballet world moving forward."

Watch and or donate to Swans for Relief at this link.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.