The ballerina made history when she became the first African American female Principal Dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, quickly cementing her as a role model almost unrivalled in the industry. This resume has also landed her huge endorsements with the likes of Under Amour, which is part of the reason why the 35-year-old is Down Under right now –promoting her range of inspired activewear as well as guest starring in the Australian Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Women's Health sat down to chat to the phenomenon about creating the stunning collection, her sweat-inducing training regime and surprising pre-show ritual. Spoiler alert: It involves Drake.
The new Under Armour Inspired by Misty Copeland collection has just launched in Australia, how does the range reflect you?
It has been such an honour that they thought of me to collaborate with them and bring my personality and my style to the women’s line. I think it is important for the growth of the women’s line, the men have always come first at Under Armour and it's nice to be able to be given an opportunity. And for it to be here in Australia now it's even more exciting. Kate is the designer and she is really just allowed me the freedom to send her things that inspire me, send her images that I love. I feel like it is hard to pinpoint my style, I go through phases. I think I have always connected with my feminine side from being a ballerina – I love tulles and lace and flirty dresses – but at the same time, working with prints really introduced me to this edgy and funky style. Little pieces of it – more structured shoulders, corseted waists and high waists and things like that, but then how do we try to turn it into something that you can wear, something that is functional. It's been amazing to see it all come together and to have true representation of like a New York woman with an edgy, clean, sleek style with little bits of flare, like having these pieces like the gold jacket and the gold pants that are really cool, to mix and match with the cross back bras that have little peeks of skin. My favourite is the high waisted leggings, it’s really flattering, it comes in at the smallest part of your body and you just get to see a little bit of skin. It’s beautiful and I’m so proud, and we are actually starting on the third collection already.
What inspired you to start ballet?
I don’t know if I had anything that first inspired me to start ballet because I didn’t know what it was, I kind of just stumbled into it. Well, was kind of pushed into doing it. But music has been the one constant, artistic thing in my life since I was a child, I think that’s what got me to fall in love with movement, it was just having music played around the house all the time and then I decided to audition for the dance team at my school when I was 12 or 13, and that's when I was told I had a real gift for dancing. I was like ‘oh really?’ I was just creating movement in my bedroom, it was fun. That’s when I was told to start taking ballet classes and I was not interested at all, I was really pushed into taking this class and I was told by the teacher that she had never seen anyone like me, I was being called a prodigy. It was the first time that a future was really introduced to me. Just the way I grew up and being one of six children and really just surviving, my future wasn’t something that was talked about with me and I never saw a goal. So this was the first time where it was like ‘this could be your life’ and you could have a career doing this, it was kind of shocking.
Did you ever see yourself being in the incredible position you are today?
I think that maybe a year or two into my training, I went away to San Francisco for my first summer I think a year or so after I started dancing, which is really early, then I went away to New York with the American Ballet Theatre, for both I was given a full scholarship and I was asked to stay and train with the schools. That was the first time when I was like okay, it’s not just my ballet teacher that is saying ‘oh you’re amazing’. I am hearing this from really big, prominent institutions that are top in the ballet world, so I think that was it was the first time when I was like ok, this is my goal and this is what I am going to do professionally for as long as I can.
How do you feel being a role model for so many young women, and women of colour in particular?
It’s amazing. There is are many celebrities that are called role models and I think a lot of them don’t want to be role models, and I feel like this is something that has happened really naturally and organically, it wasn’t something that was put on me. It is something that I wanted to do because I saw the benefits of me being mentored by so many incredible women and it has really guided me in my career so it has just been so natural for me. But to see the effects on little brown girls and boys, it gives my career and my life more perspective. It’s not just about what I am doing on the stage and working towards everyday, but giving these kids an image of someone that they can connect with and relate to, and really change the course of how they see their lives and their futures.
What does your weekly training regime involve?
I rarely take a day off, sometimes I try to from ballet class because my body needs time to recover, but if I am not in ballet class, I will be in a pilates class. So on Sundays I might just go take a mat pilates class. I am in ballet class from 10:15 to 11:45 every morning, and then I rehearse from noon until 7pm, and that’s during a rehearsal period, sometimes I don’t get any breaks during the day, and if I do it may only be an hour from 3 to 4pm. During performance season, we will work from 10:15am to 5:30pm, and then the show will start at 7:30pm and go until 10:30pm or 11pm. So it’s really non-stop. Eating, or course, is so extremely important, but for me, everyone is different. I see some ballerinas shoving food in their face mid-day (laughs) but I would get really tired, I would feel weighed down and heavy so I like to keep it really light with lots of nuts and fruits, salads, quinoa, sushi, things like that during the day. Lots of water. I stick to just water unless it’s during a performance period, I might drink something with more electrolytes but I like to stay hydrated in a natural way. At night, is when I get to have fun and that’s when I eat the biggest meal of my day and I love food and I love to cook. I do a lot of cooking in the evening, it is such a good way to unwind.
Obviously recovery, both physical and mental, is so important. What do you do to wind-down?
Cooking for me mentally, is a beautiful escape. I love it so much, it’s creating without being so physical. Even last night, I was so jetlagged and I was in this little apartment so I was like ‘I need to sit down, but I really want to cook!’ So I’m sitting down and just chopping away on my chopping board. It’s a way for me to kind of chill out. Also music for me is a really great escape, either putting it on or going to concerts. That’s something I really enjoy doing in my downtime. But taking care of your body when you get home, it gets exhausting, there is not enough hours in the day. I have different machines that I use like a bone stimulator machine that keeps blood flow because I am prone to stress fractures so I use that when I can. I have this thing called Game-Ready, which a lot of athletes use, they are like these big pants they have compression and ice at the same time. I even brought it here with me, it is such an important part of our recovery process.
Do you still get nervous before a big performance?
It depends on what I am performing, I know I am going to be nervous before these shows here in Australia because I have never performed Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. So it’s a first for me and I don’t have a tonne of time to learn the ballet. I only have like 5 days. And it’s always nerve-racking when you are guesting with a company full of amazing dancers that you don’t know but I have never experienced a company that has been so warm and inviting already. There will definitely be nerves because I have never done the role before.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
No, not at all, I just like to put music on… I was just at the Drake concert like two nights ago, and it was so funny because I always say I like to put on Drake even if I'm about to do Swan Lake, it's just something that's so familiar.