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Ballerina Misty Copeland’s “Life in Motion”

LIFE IN MOTION: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland with Charisse Jones. Touchstone. 278 pp. $24.99. ISBN 978-1476737980

One of the hallmarks of a great ballerina is her ability to make even the most difficult steps look easy. Amid a dizzying sequence of pirouettes or a grueling battery of jumps, the best artists are the ones can who can hide any evidence of strain with elegance and authority.

American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland has long brought this quality to the stage. Her leg seems to arrive next to her ear as if it had floated up there; her grand jetes appear as effortless as riding on a breeze. Copeland, it turns out, has since childhood performed similar feats in her personal life, enduring the challenges of poverty and family instability while managing to project to the world around her a sense of focus, poise and grace.

Life in Motion is a memoir that chronicles her journey to the upper ranks of one of the world’s premiere ballet companies. Her ascent is indeed remarkable, for several reasons: She didn’t set foot in a ballet class until she was 13. Often, her family could barely scrape together money to put a roof overhead, let alone to pay for dance classes. And as a child of a half-black, half-Italian mother and a half-black, half-German father, she looks like almost nobody else in ballet’s professional ranks. (When she rose to soloist at ABT, she was the first African-American dancer to achieve that designation in two decades.)

From Copeland’s earliest days of dancing ballet, the art form felt instinctive, even reflexive, to her. Within weeks of beginning her studies, she writes, “The drill team, the stuff of my elementary-school dreams, faded in importance, and ballet was suddenly thrilling. It was all I wanted – needed – to do.” But her pure love of movement wasn’t the only thing fueling her attachment to ballet. Dance quickly became her salvation, and escape from the chaos that swirled at home. Copeland’s mother was constantly uprooting her six children to live with a new boyfriend or husband, some of whom were abusive or alcoholic. As the shiest and most self-motivated of the brood, Copland often faded into the background at home. But never at the dance studio.

Copeland’s quick anointment as a ballet prodigy created new problems. In particular, it set up a complex friction between her dance teacher and her mother. In fact, the tension eventually got so bad that it brought them all to the courtroom. This is perhaps the most absorbing part of the memoir because she describes it with preternatural fairness and empathy. Her thorough, sensitive portrayals of each player show that there is no clear villain and no clear hero.

Her tales of life in the dance studio underscore the cutthroat nature of ballet culture. During her time at ABT, for example, Copeland was called into a “fat meeting,” in which company staffers hinted to the 100-pound dancer that she should drop some weight. In the read-between-the-lines parlance of the dance world, the term of art was that Copeland needed to “lengthen” so she didn’t “lose her classical line.”

While such experiences may not strike knowledgeable readers as surprising, they are nevertheless engaging because Copeland tells them so honestly. One might expect the “fat meeting” to spark a commitment to nutritious eating or a debilitating battle with anorexia. Instead, it led to bulk deliveries of Krispy Kreme donuts. “My binges sparked a whole range of emotions,” she writes. “I would feel comforted at first, then defiant as I thought of how I was ignoring the not-so-subtle entreaties for me to lose weight and was choosing to stuff myself instead. They want me to lose weight, I’d think out loud, taking a sugar-crusted bite. I’ll eat what I want! But in the morning, I’d feel awful, my stomach tight, my body racked with guilt.”

But for all her frankness, there are some tidbits of interest that Copeland leaves out.

For example, she makes reference to a childhood friend who has become a partner in her dancewear business but never goes into any detail about their venture. The back story of this could be revealing: Is she simply scratching an entrepreneurial itch? Or is this her survivor’s instinct kicking in, a desire to create a safety net so she’ will never have go back to a life of limited choices?

She also writes little of her romances, but the book’s acknowledgments make clear that she’s in a relationship with someone who has played an important role in reinforcing her commitment to dance and mentorship. Giving more weight to these and other details might have helped paint a fuller picture of her world.

Still, even without those particulars, Copeland’s story is worth reading. Her clear-eyed assessments of her family situation and her career make her impressive rise that much more inspiring.

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