Misty Copeland On Life in Quarantine, Underrated Leadership Skills, and Promoting Diversity in the Dance World

When Misty Copeland was named the first female Black principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre in 2015 she changed the course of dance history.

By Lauryn Chamberlain

Aug 5, 2020

7 min

When Misty Copeland was named the first female Black principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre in 2015 she changed the course of dance history. But that wasn't all she had in store: Today, Copeland is not only a world-renowned dancer but also an activist and successful author of multiple New York Times-bestselling books.

Copeland is also committed to giving back to the dance community, helping to create opportunities for young dancers and promote diversity. It's no wonder, then, that she has plenty of insight to share on the intersection of the arts industry and the modern social justice movement.

Copeland recently joined journalist Melody Hahm, West Coast correspondent for Yahoo Finance, for the latest installment of Yext's Answer Me This… live digital content series. Answer Me This… features transformational business leaders and accomplished subject matter experts and gets the official answers to the most important questions on how they got where they are, where they are headed and how they see the world.

Here are a some of the official answers from Hahm's conversation with Misty Copeland:

The dance industry is grappling with the fact that large-scale performances are on hold indefinitely. How are you adjusting to the moment and helping the industry?

"In March, April, everyone was still figuring things out and asking, 'will this be a short term thing? Will we be back performing by the end of the year?' That's not going to be the case — at least [probably not in] the U.S.

I think part of being a dancer and being an artist is never having too much stability; we're constantly adjusting with things that are thrown at us. To be a part of live theater, that's what we do. We adjust in the moment and we make it work. And so I think in some ways, we dancers and performers have the resilience and have an understanding of what that means. But to experience it at this length — to not have an endpoint, or a goal that you are striving to reach — that has psychologically and emotionally affected a lot of people in the dance world. A lot of people in the world, period.

[It's with that in mind that I launched] my own campaign called Swans for Relief, which brought together 32 ballerinas from around the world to raise money to help those who aren't working, aren't getting gigs right now. The idea came to me from a friend of mine that used to dance with me in American Ballet Theatre, who now lives in Manila, in the Philippines, and performs there with a classical company. This was towards the beginning of everything hitting hard, and he told me there were about 10 dancers that had been let go in that company in the Philippines, and he saw them struggling and wanted to get them funds. We then saw that this was a much bigger thing, an opportunity for the ballet world to come together globally and show the world what it is to unite.

We ended up with 32 ballerinas from 22 different classical companies and from 14 different countries. And we have a GoFundMe page you can go to sponsor relief. We are distributing the funds to each of our respective companies. And if those companies don't have a COVID fund, then we allowed them to choose a charity that in their country that made sense as an arts' organization to be able to get the money to dancers.

One other note: As difficult as this moment is, I do feel like it's also an opportunity for us to step back and realize how we can adjust [the industry] and fit into the times. Because with ballet, in particular, and opera, there's so much history and so much tradition that you run up against a view of 'if it's not broke, don't fix it.' But on the contrary, I feel like there is so much that we could do to make this art form better and to reach more people and diversify it. Now is the time to think about that."

You've been outspoken about the lack of diversity in the classical dance world. Where and how are you seeing progress today?

"I do think this is one of the biggest issues with classical dance: the lack of diversity. And so I think to use this moment to be able to reach people globally with an online presence is so important. I've been having discussions with many different arts institutions [about how they can] eventually bring live performances to these communities and reach out to people that don't have the access or the means or wouldn't be introduced to it in any way. This is our moment to do it. One voice isn't enough, but I hope that that's something that the ballet world can take the reins on.

It's been such a difficult time. But my career, my life's work since I started dancing, has been exactly this: attempting to get this message out and to give a voice to dancers of color, give opportunities, and to bring awareness to the realities of what happens behind the scenes.

I think that the silver lining in this moment, for me, has been that with all of this tragedy, the [intersection] of COVID and Black Lives Matter has really called attention to these issues. This is not a new situation, but this is the perfect storm: People are at home. People have their eyes and ears open. People want to be connected to other people. And I feel like it's the same in the ballet world. I've been having these conversations very publicly and very openly for the past 20 years of my career, and it's the first time I feel like people are actually listening.

And to have these conversations very candidly, very openly with American Ballet Theatre, with everyone that's connected to the organization, to be able to push these young dancers of color to speak up and share their stories. This is the first time in my 20 years at American Ballet Theatre that I've seen this happen and that I've heard their stories. It just feels like a different moment. I felt before like we were just going to keep fighting and grinding to bring more diversity, but I feel like this is a real window of opportunity. And I think the fact that there's a spotlight being put on these organizations and they're making these pledges, it's kind of like now we're going to be able to hold this against you. It's in writing. It's on a post on Instagram.

And I do think there's something really positive about that. It's something that we can say, 'Well, this is a tangible thing that you said, and we would like to see it come to fruition.' It's not just an idea or a concept anymore."

In your mind, what is the most underrated or underutilized leadership skill?

"I think the ability to listen is the most underrated (and underutilized) leadership skill. A lot of the time, when you think of leaders, you just think of being preached at, or constantly given a solution. But I think leadership is also guiding people to come up with their own solutions, to listen to themselves, to be open to listening to others. Because I don't have all the answers. The person you may look up to doesn't have all the answers. I think it's about giving guidance and a structure to be able to formulate ways of figuring out things for yourself personally. I think that's good leadership.

There is so much power in patience, understanding, and being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. These skills are going to be integral for our future."


The Answer Me This… digital content series features live conversations with transformative business leaders, inspiring trailblazers, and industry influencers, and explores how they got to where they are and where they're headed. The next event will take place on September 16, 2020 at 2pm ET and our speaker will be announced shortly. We can't wait to see you then!

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