Misty Copeland's size 6 feet are her compass. They guide the young ballerina's lithe limbs across the stage where she does triple pirouettes on pointe and plies with the grace of a seasoned dancer.
Misty, however, is a novice with only eight months ballet training. Even so, the 14-year-old high school freshman is quickly becoming one of the fastest-rising stars in the San Pedro City Ballet, winning a key role in the "Nutcracker" production, which opened Saturday at San Pedro High School, over several more experienced dancers.
Her success would not be possible if not for a ballet instructor who discovered her talent and took her into her home--and a mother who had fallen on hard times and recognized that someone else could give her daughter an opportunity that she could not.
"Letting go of her was the hardest thing I ever had to do," said Misty's mother, Sylvia DelaCerna. "But I could see how much dance meant to her, and I know how much it meant to me, so I would never hold her back."
Two years ago, DelaCerna got a divorce and left a house in San Pedro, a car and financial security. Since then, the former Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader has raised five of her six children as a single parent, living in Gardena, and sometimes working two jobs so she and the children can get by.
Misty had taken a free ballet class at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club last spring and her talent was noticed immediately by the instructor, Cynthia Bradley.
The veteran dancer, who started the San Pedro City Ballet with her husband, Patrick David Bradley, three years ago, said she had never seen a student pick up ballet so quickly or move so gracefully with such little experience.
"When I touched her feet I could tell she had it in her to be a great dancer," Bradley said. "I lifted her leg up to her ear and it stayed there. Her muscles were really developed and she had a perfect body."
Bradley, a former Atlanta Ballet dancer, gave Misty a dance scholarship so she could continue and offered to pick her up for class to ease the commute. Misty, who had little dance experience except for a year of drill team, took classes for three weeks.
By then her mother had determined that the four-hour round-trip bus ride made the classes unfeasible.
Threatened with losing a dancer who she believed would one day be a prima ballerina, Bradley offered to take in Misty and foster her talent. She believes that Misty has the kind of talent that could take her anywhere in the world if she just has a chance.
"I wanted that to be possible," Bradley said. "She had what it takes most folks years to get; she has the soul for ballet."
So Bradley took her star student--with just three months of experience--to an audition for the Los Angeles Classical Ballet's intensive five-week summer program. David Wilcox, artistic director for the ballet and the Long Beach Ballet Art Center, which sponsors the program, was so impressed with Misty that he gave her a full scholarship to the classes.
It is the first time in the company's 15-year history that it has awarded a scholarship.
"When I first saw her I figured she had been taking ballet for a few years," Wilcox said. "It is the most remarkable thing I have ever seen. She is obviously a prodigy."
Her mother wasn't sure she had done the right thing, giving up her daughter to someone else and seeing her only on weekends. But when she saw her dance at a recital, she knew that she had.
"I watched her dance and it made me cry, she is such a beautiful dancer," DelaCerna said. "Watching her become successful along with my other kids makes me feel better about our situation and shows me that we're moving in the right direction."
For Misty, a ninth-grader at San Pedro High School, ballet is the most important thing in her life. She says she wants nothing more than to be a ballerina.
She spends nearly 30 hours a week practicing and readying herself for the role of Clara in "The Nutcracker," a ballet she hasn't yet had a chance to see.
And although her life has changed dramatically over the last year, Misty says she likes the home she shares with the Bradleys and their 3-year-old son, Wolf. And she feels that she fits right in.
"I've always been nervous about going to other people's houses," Misty said. "But I never felt nervous there."
Misty calls her mother a few times a week and sees two of her brothers every day because they also attend San Pedro High School.
She has made a lot of new friends in high school and has a few remaining friends from her days at Dana Middle School in San Pedro. But she doesn't go out much since she is focused on being a ballerina, a dream she says she has had since she was 3 years old and dressed up for Halloween in a pink tutu.
Bradley says the youngster never stops dancing, even when she's walking the dog.
"I love to dance," Misty says. "It makes me feel happy."