When I picked up Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland, I was not familiar with Misty's career or her life. I was drawn to the biography because of its subject matter: I've always loved ballet, and though I'm not a classical ballerina, I'm a dancer, too; and I relate very strongly to stories about prodigies and underdogs. Very strongly. I also loved the title, because I often say (or others have said about me) that I'm constantly in motion. Furthermore, as an example of how my life works, I wrote a play about ballerinas which made its debut the same week this book was released. For all these reasons and more, I was compelled to snatch up this book immediately and leap right in.
What a remarkable, encouraging story. Written naturally, modestly, and conversationally, by the end of Life in Motion, readers will feel as if they know Misty personally - especially if they have endured similar hardships. As one of six children in a family that didn't have a lot of disposable income (if any), Misty was fairly content with her life. She loved her siblings, and she attended school faithfully - in fact, she was so afraid of being late, she was always an hour early to school. She loved dancing around her room to the radio, letting the music move her from the tips of her fingers to the tips of her toes.
When she was in middle school, she tried out for the school drill team. Her affinity for movement, her flexibility, and her ability to pick up choreography quickly led her drill team coach to recommend that Misty take ballet classes at the local Boys and Girls Club. Shortly thereafter, she began training at a formal dance studio, and within a few years, this little girl was being touted as a ballet prodigy and being scouted by various studios and companies for their summer programs and year-round schools for young dancers. Though she spent some years training and living with her dedicated ballet teacher, Misty ended up back in the motel with her single mother and siblings in her late teens, struggling to figure out what to do and where to go, trying so hard to do the right thing, wanting to please her mother but also wanting desperately to pursue her dance career. She went on to study at the San Francisco Ballet School, then take summer intensives at the American Ballet Theatre before realizing her dream and becoming an official member of ABT: first in the corps de ballet, then promoted to soloist.
Being an African-American ballerina, Misty had to confront the fact that, at times, she was or wasn't placed in classical roles or companies due to her race. She had to learn to stand up for herself and believe that she could become the acclaimed dancer she so wanted to be, that she would find mentors and choreographers who believed in her and would support her career. Couple this with injuries (and dancers know all too well how injuries hurt not only your body but also your mind and your career) and all of the media attention she received -- that pressure could have been overwhelming. Not only did Misty land on her feet and dance roles that many classical and contemporary dancers dream of, but she continues to reach higher and higher, aiming for her goals, working towards opportunities to perform more of her favorite roles, and connecting with the community, bringing ballet into Boys and Girls Clubs and other forums to give more audiences exposure to this beautiful art form she loves so much.
Throughout the memoir, Misty seems both very humble and very honest. She talks about the times that racial epithets stung her, and the custody battle that took place when she was a teenager. She details her training, through the summer programs and the competitions, and the times when she had to make some extremely difficult choices. You feel her triumphs and tragedies, wincing whenever she falls and cheering her on every time she gets back up. The message here is loud and clear: Follow your heart. If you know what you love, if you know what moves you, keep moving.
This September, the picture book Firebird, written by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers, the Caldecott Winner for the book Harlem, will be available in stores. I'm very excited for that book as well, because it will help Misty's story reach the very youngest aspiring dancers and their families, and I look forward to seeing Myers' illustrations, because I know they will be striking.
A special note for those of you who wish to pursue a career in the arts or any field that you worry you can't afford -- I've been there, and trust me, you can do this. You can find a way. Scholarships. Internships. Auditions. Show up, and keep showing up. Show them what you can do. Try, and keep trying. You will find a way.
You don't have to have a lot of money,
All you got to have is fire burning deep in your soul
If you have a dream for something that you love
I'll support you, yeah, I'll play my role
- from the song Easy Please Me by Katy B
Related Bildungsroman Booklist: I Am a Dancer