When Misty Copeland first starred in an ad for Under Armour three years ago she was hardly known outside dance circles. But after the goosebumps-inducing vid showcasing her warrior-like defiance and uncharacteristically chiselled ballerina body made the rounds on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, her name found its way to the lips of people who’d never even seen a ballet in their life.
A year later she made history as the first African American to become a principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. She’s also written two autobiographies, appeared on the cover of Time magazine and has continued to work with Under Armour, as well as a half dozen other brands, as a spokesperson and design collaborator. In short, she’s on her way to becoming a bona fide icon.
Her latest ad with the sportswear brand is even more stirring than her first. Part of Under Armour’s “Unlike Any” campaign—which also features Harlem Run Crew founder Alison Désir, stuntwoman Jessie Graff, Olympian Natasha Hastings and black belt Zoe Zhang—the minute-and-a-half video shows Copeland dancing to words written and recited by poet Saul Williams.
“The systemic structure made to keep me in place, is the stage I dance on. Black and woman,” it starts, beautifully characterizing how far Copeland has come in her career since that first campaign video—and just what barriers she faced in the process.
We caught up with her at the campaign launch, where she took stock of her incredible career and shared her thoughts on life, inspiration and what it really takes to succeed as an elite athlete against the odds.
On getting her start at age 13:
“As soon as I started ballet I fell in love with it. Children should experience the structure and discipline of sport. I didn’t have that as a young person, so as soon as I had a taste for it I wanted it all the time. My instructors told me I’d have to take three classes a day for the next three years if I wanted to be a professional, and I was like ‘OK!’ Starting later in life was never something that gave me anxiety. It’s like with anything you do, if you have the passion for it and the love, that’s what’s going to push you forward.”
On the importance of work-life balance:
“I think that all elite athletes have to have balance if they’re going to accomplish what they set out to. Tonight my downtime is going to be having a picnic with my husband. I ordered my groceries online, I’m going to run home and cook and we’ll head to the park.”
On the perils and power of social media:
“Having such a visual art form, it makes sense to be on social media, it’s such a nice way of sharing we do through short videos and imagery, and in that way introduce a new audience that might not be familiar with ballet. But as much as social media has been such a huge part of getting my message out there, there’s not always a lot of positivity on these platforms. For young women especially, it can be damaging to see imagery over and over again that’s not a true representation. So much of what I stand for is being empowered to be yourself, and I want people to see that I’m not this perfect cookie-cutter ballerina and that I work really hard to be here.”
On putting the work in:
“For me, ballet is the ultimate workout. It’s an entire full-body experience, including emotional, mental and spiritual. And it’s something that’s fun, so you’re not like ‘Oh, I have to work on my hamstrings’—you’re dancing and moving and just automatically working all those things using your natural body weight and resistance.”
On the responsibility of representation:
“I had always noticed the lack of representation and diversity in classical ballet, so the small group of successful Black women that came into my life had an impact that was bigger than I ever imagined. They inspired me to push beyond what I thought was possible. So I really understand the importance of what I represent now.”
On meeting Obama:
“I spent a lot of time with him throughout his presidency. I think to have a positive Black man as an example is so impactful, not only for me as a Black woman but for the Unites States. He’s so down to earth and normal that it was so easy to be around him and have important conversations. He opened up about his daughters and what it means to have positive examples in your life. It meant the world to me.”
On handling criticism:
“As dancers, we have such thick skin. Criticism is just what happens in ballet class every day. Your instructors are just like ‘that’s wrong’ and you’re like ‘OK’ and then you learn how to be better. But it’s harder for me when I read things on blogs and social media. That’s why I encourage people not to look at comments, and I have to remind myself that these people who are criticizing me as a person don’t know me. And I think that’s important for young people to remember especially.”
On staying motivated:
“I need to get things done as soon as I wake up. It’s when I’m feeling my most rested and most powerful. If I procrastinate and think ‘Oh, I’ll just take that ballet class at 4 p.m.’ then it’s not going to happen. So I have to get up, get it done, and then I feel so much better about myself.”