In case you don’t know black ballerina Misty Copeland, she is the groundbreaking ballerina, who in 2015 was the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. Even if you’re not familiar with the ballet world, it’s pretty clear that the title of principal dancer is a big deal, and to be the first black woman promoted to that role (ever) is an even bigger deal. According to an article on CNN.com, Copeland, who joined the company in 2001, “has been outspoken about her desire to become the first black woman to be named a principal dancer at the company.” And that goal finally became a reality last year, when she blasted past obstacles and made history.

And while this accomplishment would be impressive for any dancer, it’s even more amazing considering Copeland’s past and how her dancing career began. Most ballerinas begin training at an incredibly young age, even as young as 3 or 4 years old. Copeland didn’t take a single dance class until she was 13 and was encouraged to try dance at her local Boys & Girls Club. Her body type is also not that of a typical ballerina—she is only 5’2” and curvy, quite different from the tall, leggy, slim dancers you see. All of these qualities certainly make Copeland an “unlikely ballerina,” but none of that has stopped her; in fact, it has propelled her forward. Here are 8 lessons we can all learn from the amazing Misty Copeland, and here’s hoping that young girls (and adults) everywhere pay attention to the incredible talent and hard work demonstrated by this superstar black ballerina.  

Read Related: 10 Films About Dancers that Make You Want to Twirl


1. Never Give Up
Misty Copeland had a tough family life as a child, and had to overcome several obstacles to get where she is, but no matter what stood in her way, she never quit. As reported in a NY Times article, Copeland once said that “I had moments of doubting myself, and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level. At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through, to carry the next generation.”

2. First You Have to Believe in Yourself
No matter who else you have in your corner, you need to believe in yourself first. Even if people tell you that you should quit, try something new, or that you don’t have what it takes—and there will always be people saying that—you need to believe that you are capable, strong and worth it, and you need to be willing to work hard to prove that to the world.


3. There is No Such Thing as Perfect
When you think of a traditional ballerina body, you picture long legs and a tall, slim body. You do not picture a short woman (by dancer standards), with muscular legs and a curvy figure. But Misty Copeland is proof that there is no such thing as perfect, and that you need to recreate the mold and define your own rules when it comes to achieving your goals. Just watch her commercial for Under Armour, which boasts the tagline “I Will What I Want.” Over 9 million people have watched this commercial spot on You Tube, which means a lot of people are hearing her message of self-acceptance loud and clear.

4. You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
Copland didn’t begin dancing until she was 13, which may seem young, but in the ballet world it’s actually quite late in life to learn this skill. Which just goes to show you that she has a natural, undeniable talent that was meant to be shared with the world. Beginning her training a solid 10 years after some girls, Copeland had to learn everything quickly to catch up, but her success is proof that it’s never too late to learn something new, especially if you are passionate about it.


5. Some Talent We Are Born With
Some of us could work every day to learn how to dance pointe, and still never accomplish that goal. Misty Copeland quickly realized (as did her dance teachers) that she could go into almost any position, including a tendu pointe (which is REALLY hard), right from the beginning—a pretty good indicator that she had natural talent. If you have talent, whatever that talent may be, don’t deny it. Listen to what your body and your mind can do, because it can take you really far.

6. But Hard Work is Everything
And while talent can certainly help you along the way, and it’s an important ingredient in achieving success, hard work is just as crucial. Just because Copeland is gifted does not mean she ever took that talent for granted or slacked off in her training. She trained every day, and worked incredibly hard to get where she is now. An article on Forbes.com puts it perfectly: “Belief in the end goal is important for one’s ambition to be realized because it provides the impetus to do the hard work necessary to master a skill and stay on track, and mastery is essential for ambition. Without skill, ambition is simply a pipe dream. Misty had a strong commitment to develop her talent and for years she focused on being the best she could be.”


7. You are More Powerful Than You Think
In April 2012 when given the chance to perform the lead role in Firebird, Copeland was injured with six stress fractures in her leg. Think about that. And she danced anyway, realizing it was the opportunity of a lifetime. We’re not suggesting you risk your health or do something crazy like that, but remember that you are stronger than you think and capable of more than you know. Don’t be afraid to push yourself.

8. Success is Great, but You Need to Pass On
Working hard to achieve success is certainly important, but what do you do once you accomplish those goals? How you use your success is perhaps even more important in determining the kind of person you will be and the life you will lead. Copeland uses her success and her experiences to help others, and as People reports, she “mentors promising dancers and sits on the board of Project Plié, which the ABT founded in 2013 to help diversify American ballet companies.”