When I was 7 I walked into a ballet class wearing a fluro-pink leotard and my curly thick hair messily pulled up into a loose bun, eager to taste ballet for the first time ever. From a very young age, I have always loved dancing. I loved creating dramatic movie-like scenarios, like in Moulin Rouge and I would spend hours dancing, singing and dressing up until my mum would tell me cut it out and get out of the bathroom.
Ballet always fascinated me because it was dancing – something that I enjoyed – but it was also discipline, strength and clean, powerful movements that made it seem so dramatic, yet so extraordinary. All my best friends were doing ballet and I was already doing gymnastics, so what was stopping me from entering this world?
Even if it’s almost 20 years later, I still remember that day in a tiny ballet room filled with cute and excited little girls learning to point their feet.
I had fun, great loads of fun; but I quickly realized that I wasn’t fit for that. Being a biracial kid living in a predominately white neighbourhood, I was already aware of the diversity of my skin and my body. My thighs were significantly bigger, my butt was already struggling to be contained by the tight leotard, and my hair was not thin and definitely breaking the laws of physics.
I was 7 years old and I already knew that I was different from the other kids because of the color of my skin and that may have not brought me sadness, but there was definitely a lot of discomfort.
M feeling of being inadequate and insecure overpowered my desire to be a ballerina, and I forever gave up to pick up something that could have been a lifelong passion and a way to express myself with my own body.
I have spoken to many girls with stories like mine before and we all come up with one conclusion: we need better and a more diverse representation of our society for younger generations.
That’s why the challenger of today is Misty Copeland. Misty is the first African-American woman to become principal ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre in 75 years, and also a huge advocate and role model for young dancers.
Misty was also recently appointed as ambassador of the sport clothing company Under Armour, by becoming the first ballerina to ever achieve a sponsorship like that.
Her advertising video feautures her giving an outstanding performance with a rejection letter that she received from a ballet academy, being read in the background. (You can watch it below)
In her career as a ballerina and her tough training to rise to the top of where she currently stands, Misty has attributed her perseverance and absolute belief in herself, as the key factors of her incredible success.
Here are some of the things that we can learn from this athlete.
1. FIGHTING AGAINST ALL ODDS
Ballet has always been a “rich white girl” kind of thing, as it needs a specific type of studio, expensive equipment and long hours of training. Misty was raised in San Pedro, California, living in a motel room with her 5 siblings and her single mother, when she decided to take ballet. The extraordinary thing about her beginning is that unlike many other professional ballet dancers, Misty started her training when she was 13 years old, taking lessons in an old basketball court.
2. PERSEVERANCE IS HER KEY
Misty attributes her success in becoming a ballerina to her perseverance in following her dream and working hard in achieving it. When she was younger, her mother – racially diverse herself – always used to remind her that because of her race, she would have always been seen as a black woman, so by that she would have had to prepare herself to work hard, if not harder than everybody else. And this hit her completely when she moved to New York to join the Academy and noticed that she was the only African-American woman out of 80 dancers.
By accepting the fact that some people would have stopped her from achieving her dream only because of her skin color and her looks, Misty prepared herself to fight and sweat to create the opportunities that she needed; and her perseverance and commitment to her dreams and career has allowed her to rise above all discrimination and personal challenges, by becoming one of the most influential dancers of all time.
3. DON’T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER
Misty never listened to the rejections that she received, nor accepted the judgements that she was undergoing by being a biracial woman in a predominantly white field. Perseverance was her weapon.
It roughly takes 15 years of training before a ballerina can join an academy at 17 years old. Misty didn’t care; she started at 13 and worked sweat and blood for 4 years until she was on the same level, if not above, of everybody else.
Only 1% of professional dancers actually make it into the Academy and rise up to her current level within the company. Misty had to take a lot of “no” and “you’re not fit for the role”, or “you’re not skinny enough” and just the usual silent discrimination that excludes you out of opportunities because of how you look, but without really explicitly telling you why.
Misty recently played the role of Odine in The Swan Lake, one of the most sought after roles in ballet, because of its strict casting selection. The idea is that Odine is turning into a swan during the play, therefore most ballet companies seek a specific type of ballerina: white, feather-weight and slender. Something that Misty never was. But she just went for it, and when she performed the Swan Lake at the MET, the audience was in so much awe in front of her grace and talent, that they kept cheering loudly for her, the point of almost interrupting the performance.
So Misty knows a great deal of fighting and refusing “no” as a final answer, until you get what you want and deserve.
“it’s about keep going even they say “no”, that you don’t fit the role, or the body, or the dance; and keep getting focused, scarifying your choices and being dedicated.
4. IT TAKES A LOT OF PAIN TO CREATE A LOT OF SUCCESS
The severe and intense training that Misty had to undergo at a very young age taught her to maintaining focus and mental strength, while undergoing a great deal of physical pain.
The pain that dancers experience—I don’t know if it can be compared to any athlete, or anything. There’s something that is engrained in us as ballet dancers where we constantly have a poker face on. Even on stage, we experience some of the most extreme physical pain. You go through a ballet that’s three hours long and have to still put on a face that you’re enjoying yourself and performing. It takes a lot of mental strength to not let all those negative thoughts come into your mind, to just push them out and stay focused in the moment for a very long period of time. I think we’re some of the strongest people
Pain is excruciating, sometimes unbearable, but once we get past the physical limit of it, our mind is trained to rise above everything else. We have to undergo huge amount of pain -whether it’s physical, or a heartbreak – but if we learn from it and sit through it, we come out of the dark tunnel as strong as we will ever be, because our pain has a meaning. It is a step towards the end result.
5. ACCEPT AND BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.
This is most important message of Misty’s challenging life and legacy. If she had listened to the people who criticized her body, her techniques and those who didn’t believe in her because of her late training; Misty wouldn’t be here to tell her incredible story.
I think it’s important as a child to feel like you belong. But belonging shouldn’t mean you are like everyone else. You want to feel accepted, but you don’t have to look like everyone around you, you don’t have to follow the exact same path as someone before you. I think that’s been my experience—that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be unique, that you can set your own path.
Because I felt like I didn’t belong in that ballet room, I gave up on something that I really loved and that I would have liked to pursue. I know that if I had seen a ballerina like Misty on tv, talking about believing in yourself and embracing your diversity even when people mock you and belittle you; I most certainly would have not walked out. And I am sure that a lot of people can agree with me on this point.
This is why it’s important that we share and embrace the stories of people who have diverse backgrounds and inspiring stories, because there will always be one little kid who will benefit from it and find the courage and perseverance they need to pursue their passions.