Copeland’s remarkable story is the sort you can
imagine depicted by a skilled novelist; her life, in the
words of a 2015 "60 Minutes" report, is
"the embodiment of the American dream."
Growing up as one of six children in an often-struggling
Southern California family, she lived for some time with
her mother and siblings in two rooms in a highwayside
motel. At the Boys & Girls Club gym one day, a
teacher noticed something distinctive in the tiny, quiet
13-year-old’s movements, and suggested a ballet class.
to today: Copeland, now 34, has become the first
African-American principal dancer at American Ballet
Theatre, one of the world’s most revered classical
ballet companies. A dancer of rare power and musicality
(and an astonishing prodigy in a profession where most
preteens have already undergone years of training), she
has performed leading roles on the company’s New York
City stage and around the world, and looks forward to
performing her first "Giselle" this spring.
through writing, she has shared her story: with a
best-selling 2014 memoir ("Life in Motion: An
Unlikely Ballerina"), a children’s book
("Firebird"), and now a health-and-fitness
book, "Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way
to a Leaner, Stronger and More Graceful You."
Copeland worked with writer Charisse Jones on both
"Life in Motion" and "Ballerina
Body," the books stemmed from her longtime practice
of keeping a journal. "That’s been a go-to for me
since the age of 15," said Copeland last month, in
a telephone interview from New York. (It was late
morning her time, on a Monday — and in the way of all
ballerinas, she had just emerged from a two-hour daily
was really shy, and it was hard for me to communicate
with people through words," she said, of how her
writing habit began. "It was a nice way to express
myself by writing things down in my journal."
Though she said she’s made less frequent entries since
marrying her longtime boyfriend, attorney Olu Evans,
last summer, she still turns to her journal "when
there are really big things and moments that happen in
my life, if I’m really struggling with something. When
I’m alone on the road, I write more."
process of writing with Jones felt "very
organic," said Copeland, beginning with photocopies
of the journals and evolving into emailing back and
forth. Though both books contain elements of Copeland’s
life story, they are distinctly different: "Life in
Motion" is a compelling memoir of a chaotic
childhood and the revelation of falling in love with
dance; "Ballerina Body," with exercises and
recipes, is more of a how-to book, wrapped in an
misconception of dancers having eating disorders is
something constantly brought up to me," Copeland
said, of the impetus for her new book. "I felt like
it couldn’t be a better time to really give people who
aren’t explicitly part of the ballet world a real,
true inside view of what it feels like to be a
quiet rebuke to the idea of the ballerina as a fragile
flower, Copeland filmed an ad for the athletic-wear
company Under Armour in 2014, showcasing her powerfully
muscled yet lithe body. (It now has more than 10 million
YouTube views.) "Under Armour gave me a platform to
showcase that dancers are athletes," said Copeland.
"There’s no way we could perform and rehearse
without filling our bodies with food and taking care of
ourselves, the same way any athlete would."
addition to practical advice about food and fitness,
"Ballerina Body" goes deeper, in a chapter
devoted to mentoring — obviously something deeply
personal for Copeland (who, to this day, is still
involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America).
"We’re human beings, not robots — we have days
when we’re down and we need that support from people
we trust and respect," she said.
a journal entry in the book, Copeland describes how, in
her early years at ABT, she learned about Raven
Wilkinson, who danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte
Carlo in the 1950s as the company’s first
African-American ballerina. "I felt an emotional
attachment and connection that I didn’t know I yearned
for," she wrote. "I felt for the first time
what my purpose might be in this rarefied elite white
manager planned a meeting with the now-81-year-old
Wilkinson. "We learned that she lived about two
blocks from me, and she had been attending my
performances since the time I joined the company,"
said Copeland, her voice indicating thrilled wonderment.
"We ended up doing a radio interview, and a talk
about the two generations of black ballerinas. She’s
still very much a part of my life, such a positive
her book, Copeland urges readers looking for inspiration
to find people they admire — to approach authors at
book signings, for example. For her part, she feels like
"an open book" in presenting her life’s
experiences to the world. When approached, she said,
"I always encourage younger dancers to surround
themselves with support, to believe in themselves, to
feel comfortable in their own skin and try not to get
caught up in society’s standards of what’s
acceptable, what’s beautiful. That’s really hard in
this day and age."