As one of six kids, Misty Copeland grew up underprivileged, but it was a free ballet class—and the generous ballet teacher who spotted her talent and took her in—that completely shifted her future.

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Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland's the first African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre—but she wouldn't be where she is today if it hadn't been for the Boys and Girls Club.

​​This week on Parents's podcast We Are Family, the history-making dancer—and author of the children's books Bunheads and Firebird, as well as her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina—chats with Parents digital content director and host Julia Dennison about growing up in an underprivileged community, the mentors who became her chosen family, and how ballet made her feel like she belonged.

"It was at 13 years old that I was introduced to ballet on the basketball court at my local Boys and Girls Club," says Copeland. "That was the first time that I was given an opportunity and that someone saw a future for me beyond the circumstances that I grew up in. I wouldn't be the first black principal ballerina in the [American Ballet Theatre's] 75-year history if it weren't for my Boys and Girls Club. And for people believing in me, in setting an example for what it means to be a mentor and a leader."

It was her very first ballet teacher—Cynthia Bradley—that recognized Copeland's talent and took her in for the first three years of her training—becoming a huge support system for the dancer.

"What family means to me is so much more than just the family you're born into," says Copeland. "This ballet teacher bringing me into her home, seeing the potential, saying that I was a prodigy from the moment that I took that first ballet class. And giving so much to help me have a brighter future. It was something that I still can't really wrap my head around. I speak about it with my husband all the time. Like, would we ever take someone into our home? And it's quite a commitment. And it's unbelievable just to think back on the generosity of so many people throughout my life."

Copeland can't say enough about the family that she's created—including the one she's building with husband, Olu Evans, who was her very first boyfriend.

"He's been such a huge part of my growth," she says of Evans, who was introduced to the dancer at a nightclub in New York City by celebrity cousin Taye Diggs. "Meeting him at 21 years old and having my first boyfriend, he instantly became family and became a sense of stability that I'd never really experienced in terms of a male figure in my life. I'm just so fortunate. I can't believe to this day that I found him at such a young age and that someone who respected me and the commitment and sacrifices that I was making for my career."

It's all of this chosen family that's made such an impact on Copeland's career and life that cemented the idea for her that you don't have to do things on your own to be successful.

"It's really important to accept help and support and guidance. I think that's really hard for young people and you often feel like you can do it on your own and if you don't do it on your own, you're a failure. I think it's just really important to know that you're only stronger by having incredibly supportive, strong people behind you that you can lean on."

Check out We Are Family Episode 11 now for more with Copeland on being raised by a single mom, why she thinks it's so important for kids to do sports, and on being the cool aunt to her nieces and nephews.

Listen to We Are Family on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, TuneIn, Stitcher, Google, and everywhere podcasts are available.

Listen to Season 2, Episode 11 right now:

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Misty Copeland: I'm Misty Copeland. And to me, family is caring. It's love, it's stability, and it doesn't have to be the family you're born into. Family can be just the people that you're surrounded by, who love and care for you.

Julia Dennison: Hello and welcome to We Are Family. I'm here with Misty Copeland who made history as the first African American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. She's also the author of the children's books Bunheads and Firebird, as well as her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.

Misty, welcome to We Are Family. Thank you for coming on the podcast.

Misty Copeland: Thank you so much for having me.

Julia: I'd love to just start by talking a little bit about your childhood. I know that you grew up in a very busy home with five siblings...

Misty Copeland: Yes.

Julia: Very hectic. Can you talk a little bit about what your childhood was like?

Misty Copeland: Yeah. Family life was very chaotic growing up. Like you said, I was one of six children. I am. And for most of my upbringing, it was in a single parent home with my mother raising us. There was a lot of moving around. There wasn't a lot of stability or consistency. I went to so many different schools. It was around the age of 7 that we settled in San Pedro, California. And that was really the first time that I felt like I was a part of a community. And that was the same year that I became a member of the Boys and Girls Clubs in San Pedro, California. And it was really just a safe place that my mother could have all of us kids while she was working two jobs after school. And that really became a second home and a second family for me and my siblings. And the first time that I experienced mentorship in my life and a real sense of guidance and a support structure that I hadn't yet seen.

Julia: You know we talk a lot on this podcast actually about found family and about family not necessarily being your biological family that you're born with. Who exactly outside of your immediate family would you consider family?

Misty Copeland: I have so much family outside of my big, biological family. I have an incredible group of women that have come into my life, throughout my journey as a ballerina and as a professional, that have been mentors. Whether it's former dancers, whether it's board members of American Ballet Theatre. You know, it's been quite a journey and it was at 13 years old that I was introduced to ballet on the basketball court at my local Boys and Girls Club. That was the first time that I was given an opportunity and that someone saw a future for me beyond the circumstances that I grew up in. And so I wouldn't be a member of American Ballet Theatre. I wouldn't be the first black principal ballerina in the company's 75-year history if it weren't for my Boys and Girls Club. And for people believing in me, in setting an example for what it means to be a mentor and a leader.

Julia: Who was that person that really spotted your potential?

Misty Copeland: It was my drill team coach, Elizabeth Cantine, at my public school who suggested I take a free ballet class at the Boys and Girls Club. And that was mortifying to me to step outside of my comfort zone. It was already enough for me to join the drill team, stepping outside of my comfort zone as such a shy and introverted child, but doing classical ballet, that was just absolutely not. I've never heard classical music. It was like a foreign language for me. So once she pushed me to take that ballet class, from there it was my first ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley, that literally became a family for me. I lived with my teacher and her husband and her 3-year-old son for the first, I don't know, three, three and a half years of my training. And they took me in and my "family" in quotes has been building ever since. And what family means to me is so much more than just the, again, the family you're born into.

Julia: So they actually became your custodial guardians. Was that right?

Misty Copeland: Yes.

Julia: Did you understand what was going on when you were a child going through all of that?

Misty Copeland: I don't think I really understood the nuts and bolts of it all, but I knew that this was the first time that I was a part of something that was bigger than me. That I was doing something that would help me become a better person. Give me opportunity beyond the circumstances that I grew up in. And then this ballet teacher bringing me into her home, seeing the potential, saying that I was a prodigy from the moment that I took that first ballet class. And giving so much to help me have a brighter future. It was something that I still can't really wrap my head around. I speak about it with my husband all the time. Like, would we ever take someone into our home? And it's quite a commitment. And it's unbelievable just to think back on the generosity of so many people throughout my life.

Julia: And so how different was that family life with them versus what you knew from your mother? And then also, you didn't have much of a relationship with your father, right?

Misty Copeland: No. I grew up really with my mother raising me. I didn't meet my father until I was 23 years old. But I grew up in underprivileged communities for most of my upbringing and being a young Black girl, it was such a huge shift for me to move in with this white family in a suburb. I'd never experienced anything like it. I mean, even sitting at a dinner table, sitting down around a table and having a conversation and being asked how I felt about things and what I wanted for my future. This was all so foreign to me, it was a completely different environment from, there was a lot of love in my household, but there was not a lot of structure and stability. And it literally was just a complete flip.

But the one thing that kept me feeling like I belonged was ballet. From the moment I entered ballet, I felt like this is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is a way for me to voice everything that I've had inside of me for 13 years and not had a true way of articulating myself. And so ballet, I think, is what kept me from feeling like a complete outsider within that family structure. I mean, they were incredible to me, but still coming from such a different upbringing, it was a big shock.

Julia: Right. And so what's your relationship with your mom today?

Misty Copeland: I have a relationship with every woman in my life that has helped to nurture and mentor me. It was tough back then for any mother to, I guess, in some way, give up their child and to further their future. So, it's not the perfect ideal family situation, but I never have had that and I don't look for what's expected or what society tells us a family should be. I'm so proud of the family that I've helped to build around me and the incredible people that have come into my life. My ballet teacher, Cynthia, is still a part of my life and her family. My drill team coach, Elizabeth Cantine, who I call my godmother, is still a part of my life as well. So I feel so blessed to have so much family in my life.

Julia: What would you say to other little girls who might not feel like they see themselves in what they want to do or they don't see themselves represented in something like ballet? What would you sort of go back in time, what would you say to yourself? What would you say to other little girls?

Misty Copeland: I think it's really important to accept help and support and guidance. I think that's really hard for young people and you often feel like you can do it on your own and if you don't do it on your own, you're a failure. I think it's just really important to know that you're only stronger by having incredibly supportive, strong people behind you that you can lean on. I would just tell my younger self to be patient and know that things are going to work out the way that they're supposed to—to enjoy the process and the ride. 'Cause that's really a part of life and a part of success is enjoying that process.

Julia: And so now you're married to Olu, your husband, and I think he's your first boyfriend. Right?

Misty Copeland: Yes (laughing).

Julia: I love that. That's so sweet. So I'd love to know what your relationship with him has taught you about yourself and your idea of family.

Misty Copeland: Yeah. I mean, he's been such a huge part of my growth. Meeting him at 21 years old and having my first boyfriend, he instantly became family and became a sense of stability that I'd never really experienced in terms of a male figure in my life. I'm just so fortunate.

I can't believe to this day that I found him at such a young age and that someone who respected me and the commitment and sacrifices that I was making for my career. It's not often that you can find a partner who understands and will kind of step back and allow you to blossom and grow in your own time. I think that's what's been our strength for us being together for, I don't know, 15-plus years, is our mutual respect for each other and allowing for one another to grow as individuals as well as us as a couple.

Julia: That's great. And so am I right in hearing that you were introduced by his cousin Taye Diggs?

Misty Copeland: Yes.

Julia: Can you tell that story?

Misty Copeland: Oh my gosh. I was 21 years old and just living my best life in Manhattan, in New York City, out at a club and a man who I did not recognize as Taye Diggs came over to me and said, my cousin wants to meet you. And it was kind of just, that was it. He was actually living in Atlanta at the time in law school. So, we did long distance for a year and we'd see each other here and there, but yes, it was Taye that that introduced us

Julia: That's such a great part of that story. So now you have said before, you've talked a little bit about how you've wanted to possibly settle down and have children. Is parenthood still something you'd like to do?

Misty Copeland: Absolutely. I'm one of six children and I grew up in a big family and I love childr-, I mean, I wouldn't be a part of the Boys and Girls Clubs if that wasn't something that I enjoyed, being surrounded by the next generation who are setting an example for who we should be. And it's just, it's so beautiful to be around. I mean, even being a part of ballet, I'm constantly surrounded by young people who want to be better than us and make the world a better place. So yes, that is absolutely something that I still want to do.

Julia: And so, because you have a lot of siblings, I think you have a fair few nieces and nephews, is that right?

Misty Copeland: Oh yes! There is a ton of us.

Julia: And so what kind of aunt are you? What do you like to do?

Misty Copeland:

In my mind? I'm the cool aunt. I don't know if that's actually reality.

Julia: Got to be, come on. You're Misty Copeland. Yes. Automatically cool aunt.

Misty Copeland:

I'm the aunt that comes a couple times a year and spoils them and buys them lots of things and takes them out to fancy dinners and stuff like that. (laughing)

Julia: So yes, the best one ever. That's awesome. You've achieved so much in your life and career above and beyond what many people might've expected from a little girl like you at the age of 13. What's next on the horizon for you? What are your hopes for the future of your family?

Misty Copeland: Oh I think that I will forever be a part of dance and a part of ballet in some way, whether it's through the Boys and Girls Clubs and using local community centers to be able to reach out and give other children an opportunity that I have that is not typical in this field. I am just so excited for so many different opportunities that I have. And again, that ballet and dance is kind of the through line and the reason that I'm here and will always be a part of what the future holds for me.

Julia: And one more really quick question 'cause we have a lot of parents listening to this podcast. What would you say to parents that are interested in getting their kids into ballet?

Misty Copeland: It's so interesting. 'Cause I feel like a lot of professional dancers who experienced such hardships. It's hard to be a professional at anything, but especially an athlete, I'm an artist and we'll say oh, I don't want my child to dance. I feel the opposite way. I think that there's so much beautiful possibilities and tools that you will learn by being a part of a sport, by being a part of an art form that you're awakening these cognitive skills in a way that nothing else can for you. I would say to listen to your child and not force them to do something they don't want to do, but encourage them and nurture them and be a support system for them.

Julia: Good. My 5-year-old is in ballet 9:00 a.m. Saturday mornings. So I think I'm doing the right thing. We'll see. Misty Copeland, thank you so much for coming on We Are Family. It's been so great to have you.

Misty Copeland: Thank you so much for having me.

Julia: Thanks so much for listening to my conversation with Misty Copeland.

Come back next time when I'll be talking to author, podcaster, and late show host, comedian Samantha Bee, about how she's hoping her wild teenage years don't inspire her own kids to rebel.

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We Are Family is presented by me, Julia Dennison, and produced by Sam Walker. Editing is by Vincent Cacchione, and thanks also to the rest of our production team at Pod People, Rachel King, Matt Sav, and Danielle Roth.

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