Thursday, October 15, 2015

A review of Misty Copeland's Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina

I have never in my life taken a ballet class.  My oldest sister, on the other hand, was great at ballet and studied for many years.  She even got to study at London's Royal Ballet School when she was a teenager, thanks to my dad's Air Force assignment in England.  Though I myself have two left feet, I was often dragged to ballets when I was growing up.  Now that I'm an adult, I appreciate watching dance, though I'd hardly call myself a fanatic.

Some time ago, I read an article about Misty Copeland, a rare black ballerina in a sea of white dancers.  Misty Copeland is an extraordinary talent.  Though she didn't start dancing seriously until she was 13, she ended up becoming a principal at New York's American Ballet Theatre (ABT).  Copeland has written a book about her experiences growing up in California with her brothers and sisters, her mother, and several stepfathers/boyfriends.  For some time, Misty and her family lived in a motel where they ate what they could afford and what was easy to prepare.  Copeland was far from someone anyone would expect to become a professional ballet dancer.  And yet she is.

I had not heard of Misty Copeland before I read the article about her.  Her book was mentioned in the article, so I decided to read it.  I found Life In Motion a quick and easy read.  It was mostly entertaining and decently written.  Copeland's story is really one about someone who defied the odds to become something no one ever believed she could be.  Although many people would like to believe racism is going away, Copeland writes that she faced some discrimination as she learned her craft.  At the beginning of her book, she describes her role as the Firebird as she says to herself, "This is for all the little brown girls."  Then, she launches into how she managed to become "an unlikely ballerina".

I found myself reacting pretty strongly as Copeland writes about her mother, a beautiful biracial woman who was once a professional cheerleader for the NFL.  Though she doesn't come out and say it, I think Copeland's mom probably suffers from a couple of character disorders.  Copeland writes that her father, a man she stopped living with when she was two years old, was her mother's first husband's best friend.  When her parents' marriage broke up, Misty stopped seeing her dad.  It wasn't until she was an adult that she got to have a relationship with him.  Misty's mother's biological parents were young when she was born.  Her mother was Italian and her father was black.  They gave her up for adoption and Misty's mother was raised by a black couple who died when she was young.  Consequently, Misty's mother's upbringing was very unstable.  Misty's father is also biracial; he is the product of a German woman and a black man.

Once she'd left Misty's father, Misty's mother married Harold, the alcoholic father of Misty's sister, Lindsey.  Though Misty loved Harold like he was her real dad, Harold turned out to be irresponsible and abusive.  So there was another divorce and the family moved on to the next "dad", which produced a brother, abuse, and yet another divorce.  All of this family upheaval would be a lot for any kid to deal with, yet Misty was able to find a better place in dance.  Misty was discovered through a dance class at the Boys and Girls Club.  Through that class, she was referred to a local dance teacher, who helped her.  Misty lived with her first ballet teacher, Cindy, for two years; there, she was introduced to stability, better food, and the ability to sleep in a bed.

When Misty's mother decided she didn't like Misty's living arrangement with the teacher, she demanded that Misty move back to the motel.  Noticing how very talented the girl was, Cindy encouraged Misty to try to get emancipated from her mother.  Mom responded by hiring Gloria Allred, who put the kibosh on that arrangement.  Fortunately, Misty had done so well in ballet that she was able to launch into her career anyway; she got scholarships to pay for her training.

In fact, she eventually did so well that she was even noticed by Prince, who used her in his "Crimson and Clover" video and in a number of his live shows. Being a Prince fan, I was very interested in reading about her experiences with him.  She also writes about living with Isabel Brown, mother of Leslie Brown, a ballerina who starred in the film The Turning Point.

Overall, I enjoyed Misty Copeland's book, although the second half of it seemed to include a lot of name dropping.  It almost felt like the story sort of ended after she joined ABT, with the exception of her comments about working with Prince.  Also, the book ends rather abruptly.  When I finished the text, I was actually surprised, though that was temporarily stayed by the photos at the end of the book.  Reading this on Kindle, I noticed that the text ends at about 75%; the last quarter of the book consists of notes, acknowledgements, and the index.  I also think Misty brags a lot.  Yes, she was a prodigy and is enormously talented.  She writes that over and over again.  It's noticeable and off putting, or at least it was to me.  Also, I noticed that when she didn't do well, she blamed either injuries or racism.  In fact, she claims that racism was a major part of her struggle to become a dancer, yet when I read her book, I read about someone who managed to work with people like Prince and Debbie Allen.  Only one ballet company rejected her, the New York City Ballet.  She claims it was due to racism; but could it have been for another reason?  I think so.  No one bats 1000 every time.

Still, I admire what Misty Copeland has accomplished, especially given her tumultuous childhood.  I think the title of her book is very appropriate.  The writing could be better and I could have done without the bragging, self promotion, and name dropping.  But I appreciated her story and would recommend her book to those who are interested.   Out of five stars, I'd probably give it three and a half.


  1. I think I would probably like the book.

    I've studies a little ballet, but only the bare minimum I had to take to be a gymnast. It was always a means to an end for me. It did come in handy when I had to fill in as Annie when I was 13 and in Fiddler on the Roof and Bye Bye Birdie.

    When I was doing Fiddler on the roof, the choreographer frequently complained that almost all of the female members of the cast danced like cheerleaders.she said once a person had been a cheerleader for a significant amount of time, the person was probably ruined as a dancer. Cheerleader or athletic dance team moves are usually less fluid and more rigid and flexed than traditional dance moves should be. i was only a cheerleader for maybe 3 1/2 weeks, when my parents were out of the country and my cousin, who had temporary guardianship, signed for me to fill in as a flyer when the regular flyer had mono or something of that nature (it may have been hepatitis; I cannot remember for certain). My parents never would have signed for me to be a flyer, but for those 3/12 weeks I flew just about as high as any flyer will ever fly.

  2. Misty writes that, initially, she was attracted to gymnastics. Then she took a ballet class at the Boys and Girls Club in her area and that's when she got rescued from her nomadic homeless upbringing.

    I took one dance class. It was in college. Social and recreational dance... it was fun, but there was only one guy in the class. I learned that I won't dance, so don't ask me. ;)

  3. I didn't go to all that many of school dances, but when I did I usually spent most of my time dancing with the African American guys because they were the ones who asked me to dance. Matthew danced with the African-American girls. My brother and I both dance a bit like African Americans. So does my dad, apparently, although we've never seen him actually bust any moves, but have only heard about it. It must be genetic. It was supposedly very embarrassing to our racist TBM grandfather that his son had rhythm.

    1. I don't think rhythm is my issue so much as being really self-conscious. I think dancing is fun, though, especially if you're with a guy who can dance. Bill can't dance at all. He's too inhibited.

    2. People use the expression that a person "has rhythm" for one who dances well, but it actually has very little to do with having rhythm per se. Some people can move naturally to music and be very at ease about it, while others are, as you say, more self-conscious and uncomfortable about it. Then there are people who look relatively natural and are still uncomfortable.most people hear the beats just fine. It has almost nothing to do with actual rhythm. It's really just an expression.


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