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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Ballerina Misty Copeland speaks at UC Davis Women & Philanthropy event

Copeland and other guest speakers inspire students to persevere in the face of adversity  


By ZOEY MORTAZAVI — features@theaggie.org


Becoming a ballerina: the epitome of childhood dreams all over the world. Something about the elegance, grace, flowy costumes, tights and talent displayed by ballet dancers is effortlessly captivating. Because it is a profession that is so defined by its poise, it is no surprise that many aspire to become ballerinas themselves as they grow up. Throughout the history of ballet dancing, the image of what a ballerina is has dramatically shifted, allowing for all people to join the practice. For a long time, however, this was not the case.

Dancers such as Misty Copeland, a prima ballerina who entered the ballet world before it had diversified, became part of a movement to make ballet more approachable for people of all races and genders. Copeland has served and continues to serve as an inspiration for dancers everywhere.

On Nov. 5, Copeland came to speak at UC Davis. The event was presented by the Women & Philanthropy community, which strives to unite and inspire women to take on leadership roles and inspire others. Copeland was the first Black woman to be represented as a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world.

The event was split into two parts: for the first half, three of Davis’ very successful alumni spoke in a panel, discussing their careers, backgrounds and their roles as women in male-dominated fields. These alumni were Kimberly Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Rinki Sethi, vice president and chief information security officer at BILL and Victoria Coleman, director of winemaking at Lobo Wines in Napa.

Throughout the event, these women discussed their roles in male-dominated fields, first as a mentee, then as a mentor to other women joining their professions. They also acknowledged how important family and support systems have been in helping them reach where they are today. All three had stories to tell, revealing how they achieved their success through the people that supported and taught them.

“When I didn’t believe in myself, and I didn’t think I grasped what [my mentor] was telling me, he just proved to me that I knew what I was doing,” Coleman said.

Now, Coleman is the first Black woman to be a winemaker and producer in Napa, California.

Every woman speaking at the event offered advice and sentiments about how they got started in their careers, as well as the fact that they were some of the first to do so. Each one became a trailblazer in their respective field, making historical advances through their innovations and work. When this panel concluded, there was a brief intermission, after which Misty Copeland spoke.

Despite the impressive titles Copeland holds now, she had an unusual start to her dancing career. She didn’t begin taking dancing lessons until age 13, which is considered late in comparison to many ballerinas, with most beginning their training at a very young age. Living with five siblings and her single mother in a motel room that was two hours from her school, Copeland ended up in a ballet class that was run by her local Boys and Girls Club. While her mother was busy working multiple jobs to support her kids, the Boys and Girls Club was one of the only after-school options for Copeland.

“I’m the fourth of six children; there was so much fighting for the spotlight and attention and I never wanted that,” Copeland said. “But through dance, I started to find this quiet place that was all mine, and it just kind of blossomed over the course of four years, which was the amount of time I spent training.”

Copeland is widely known as a trailblazer in the dance universe. She struggled to find her place as a ballerina growing up; she had never seen other Black women represented in the ballet world, which made joining it intimidating. She noted that the people around her became a consistent source of support and inspiration, reminding her that it is an admirable and necessary thing for someone to be the first to do something. Learning to break boundaries has been a defining aspect of Copeland’s career.

Following some of her more famous performances with the ABT, which included Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as both the principal roles in “Swan Lake” and “Firebird,” Copeland has begun new projects centered around philanthropic efforts. Namely, she founded the Misty Copeland Foundation, through which she runs the “BE BOLD” program. With this foundation, Copeland hopes to bring diversity and equity to the dance world, bringing opportunities for children to explore their interest in dance. Through “BE BOLD,” Copeland aims to remind children that there is a place for them in the dance world if they want it.

“We want to remind dancers that you have a voice beyond just using your body as a voice,” Copeland said. “There is so much beauty and joy in our authentic stories and experiences of being exposed to dance and to art.”

Copeland has also served as an inspiration to some of UC Davis’ students, and many were excited to hear her speak over Parent and Family Weekend.

“After all the adversity she has faced and time she’s spent in a world that told her so many times that she didn’t belong, she still shows up for herself and the causes she cares about,” first-year communications major and dancer Molly Thompson said. “At Davis, we constantly hear about ‘diversity, equity and inclusion,’ but putting a face and a real story to that sentiment makes it so much more powerful. Her presentation here is a testament to that.”

Between her career and her philanthropic efforts, Misty Copeland is an important figure for both the dance world as well as for anyone trying to immerse themselves into activities where they might not feel like they belong. Her story can serve as a lesson to people everywhere; when it comes to having a passion, allowing that to lead you is the most important thing you can do. Despite roadblocks or even feelings of imposter syndrome, it is not only okay to be the first to take a risk in order to follow a dream, it is one of the bravest things a person can do.


Written by: Zoey Mortazavi — features@theaggie.org


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