International ballet star Misty Copeland credits her time at a Boys & Girls Club for contributing to her success. And she’s paying it back.
Story by Kasey Jackson
It could be a scene from a holiday commercial. Picture this: Snow is gently falling on a crowded city street. A family of three, bundled in their winter garb, navigates the maze of people moving steadily along the sidewalk, often looking up in wonder at the lights tethered to the poles above. The smell of roasted nuts escapes from an open shop door, along with a sudden gust of warmth. It stops the family in its tracks. While Mom and Dad excitedly point at the colorful sweets in the window, their 6-year-old daughter peers up at a window across the street. Her eyes are bright. Her mouth slowly drops open. Without looking away from the window, she reaches back and tugs on her mom’s coat, unable to say a word. Her mom turns to her little one and follows her pointed, mittened hand up to what — or, more accurately who — stands before them.
It’s a poster of Misty Copeland. Larger than life. Right there in the window of an athletic store.
The Under Armour ad that debuted several years ago was perhaps the introduction for many to the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre in New York City. There she stood, strong and Black and female. And she dominated not only the windows of many stores in cities across the country, but the stage as well. Her debut Under Armour ad, titled “I Will What I Want,” serves as a testament to the hard work and determination that got her where she is today.
Because life didn’t deal Misty Copeland the easiest hand. In 1996, when she and her five siblings and mother lived for a time in two small rooms in an inn, she did something that would change her life forever. She attended her first ballet class at the local Boys & Girls Club. It was there that she found the courage, discipline and determination to go from a 13-year-old girl in tube socks learning her first dance moves to dancing en pointe only three months later. Within a year, she was dancing professionally.
Copeland didn’t let an unsettled life get in her way.
You may recognize Copeland because you’ve seen her in that Under Armour ad. The little girl down the street may know her as Clara the Princess in The Nutcracker. Others know her as The Firebird. And others still know her as a bestselling author and from countless magazine covers and morning television interviews.
But many volunteers, staff and attendees of the Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro, California (now known as the Boys & Girls Club of the Los Angeles Harbor), know her as the little girl who had a dream and grew up to be the princess of the stage.
10 questions with Misty Copeland
1. Tell us a little about why you started attending the San Pedro Boys & Girls Club and what types of things you did there.
My mother was a single parent with six children, and my club was walking distance from my school. It was a safe place for me and my siblings to go while my mother worked. It was also the first place I’d ever been exposed to tutoring, extracurricular activities, sports and eventually ballet. I fell in love with woodshop class and the pool. It was really the first time I was a part of anything artistic. It changed my life.
2. What do you remember feeling that first time you danced at BGCA?
The first time I danced at my club was when I would practice my drill team routines in the gym. I loved it! But when I took ballet for the first time in that same gym on the basketball court, it was terrifying. It was the first time I was forced to step outside of my comfort zone. And I never looked back.
3. Do you continue to grow from what you learned through your time at BGCA, and if so, in what ways?
I think I realize it more and more, in time and with maturity, what an impact the club had and has on me. It was the first time I saw mentorship and leadership. Those qualities were instilled in me from then on.
4. Why is it important for volunteers to keep places like Boys & Girls Clubs active and thriving?
There are so many communities across the country that don’t have a strong support structure, that don’t have a safe home away from home, or a home at all for that matter. So when we have an institution where we can come together from all walks of life, learn from and encourage one another, it is a huge asset to everyone.
5. Volunteers were once such an important part of your life. How do you pay it forward to give back to your community?
To be in a position of impact and visibility has been a true gift to me. I know it’s not for everyone, but I’ve happily stepped into a role of mentor, leader and representation. I use my voice to share my experiences, the benefits of organizations like BGCA and the importance of the arts in our communities.
6. Sometimes we have dreams we think are too big. What would you say to someone who wants to give up on a dream?
It’s truly never too late to dream, and there’s certainly never too big of a dream to have. I think that if you know deep down exactly what it is you want for your life, fight for it! Surround yourself with supportive and uplifting people and approach things one day at a time. Every day is another opportunity to go for what you want.
7. Becoming the first Black female principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre has certainly changed countless things about your life. What is the most profound change?
Having the title of principal dancer, I’m now a very visible and tangible representation for those who came before me and for the future of those who will be able to see themselves through me. That, to me, is the most profound.
8. You’ve certainly met thousands of young dancers. Can you share with us one particular moment that will stick with you … one memory you’ve held close?
Meeting and becoming friends with a young cancer survivor named Renata. She reminds me daily just how precious life is, how valuable my relationships are and how fortunate I am to get to do what I love!
9. What message or advice would you like to give Kiwanis members about the work they do helping children in their communities?
Every single effort toward all of our missions to enrich our communities and opportunities for the next generation does not go unnoticed. I support and champion you because your work, love and support matter! Thank you.
10. On days when you just want to sleep in, or the aches and pains of countless hours of workouts and dance have you feeling drained, what motivates you to keep going?
Reminding myself just how fortunate I am, thinking of the young ones watching me, and last, remembering why I do what I do. Because I absolutely love it!
This story originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.