Friday, September 4, 2015

Book Review: Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland


I took ballet starting at age five, through my freshman year in college. I loved it. I even had an Anna Pavlova doll. But I wasn't any good. I have no turn-out, no flexibility, I roll over on my arches severely, and once I got breasts, as small as they were, I completely lost my balance. But I was good on pointe. I was able to go up sooner than most of my classmates, it didn't hurt me much, my toes never rebelled, and I can even (to this day) go up on pointe briefly in regular shoes or no shoes, not just in pointe shoes. But that one talent wasn't nearly enough to overcome all my disadvantages and today it remains part of my past. I hope one day to take an adult ballet class for fitness reasons, but that's it.

Misty Copeland had the opposite experience. She never took a class until she was thirteen. And then she showed remarkable talent and proclivity for the sport. She has amazing natural turnout, flexibility, and her body exactly conformed to the ideals laid out by Balanchine himself (that is until she hit her twenties and developed breasts and hips but she's still pretty darn perfect. She just no longer looks like a prepubescent boy, like most ballet dancers.) A natural, she was way behind everyone else. She didn't know any of the steps, any of the dances, and she didn't have the years or practice that bring muscle memory to the fore. She also had a not-great background.

At first things were pretty good. She lived with her siblings and her mother and step-father in an okay part of L.A. But her mother divorced her step-father who was an alcoholic and took them to live in another man's house, this time a rich doctor. Sounds good except that he was physically abusive to Misty's mother (Misty was his favorite among his step-children, so while her siblings found him terrifying, she did not.) When they left his house, their mother took up with a young drug dealer and everyone moved into his one-bedroom apartment. And soon into a motel. And that's where she was living when she started taking dance classes at the Boys' and Girls' Club after school. Her dance teacher ran her own studio across town, and Misty's older sister would take her there on the bus and pick her up, but at more than two hours each way, that quickly became a burden. To the teacher, though, with such a prodigy, the answer was simple: Misty should move in with her (and her husband and young son.) And for a year, Misty did live with them. For the first time she learned about nutrition and that she shouldn't subsist on Doritos and soda. And it was great for a while. But then her mother started acting weird. And she hired a prominent civil-rights lawyer. Eventually there was a high-profile custody lawsuit and an appearance on Leeza.

It was nice when that was no longer an issue, when Misty could go away to ballet schools' summer programs, and when she was able to move to New York City and finally concentrate on her career and not have so many negative distractions. She still had issues to overcome and nothing was handed to her. But she no longer had to worry about where she was going to sleep at night and if there was any decent food to eat.

There are not many African-American ballet dancers, and almost no prima ballerinas. Misty was named a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, and it's terrific that young African-American girls today have her as a role model. She didn't come from an ideal background and she made it. Granted, she had many physical advantages that others likely will not have, but its important for girls of color to see people like them in all aspects of life including the arts. I hope she will inspire others to dream, as she proves how hard work and dedication pay off.

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I bought this book at Tubby & Coo's, an independent bookstore in New Orleans, LA.

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