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Trapped in a Dispiriting Dance of Wills

Ballet: Prodigy's mother and former teacher are locked in legal duel over her.


Perched on a chair in a Gardena dance studio after yet another grueling six-hour workout, 15-year-old Misty Copeland looks simply ethereal, like one of those hand-painted porcelain figurines of a young ballerina.

Her accomplishments are just as breathtaking. Despite less than three years of dance experience, Misty won this year's Spotlight Award for gifted area high school ballet students--an unlikely victory that grabbed the attention of scouts from the famed Joffrey Ballet to New York and San Francisco dance companies.

Dance studios are supposed to be Misty's domain. But on this night, like too many others of late, there are tears forming in her eyes. The 78-pound prodigy is caught in the middle of a bitter custody dispute, torn between the tense emotional wills of two competing adults.

But this time it's not a Dad versus Mom argument. It's Mom versus coach.

Three years ago, Misty's mother, a struggling single parent, let her daughter move in with a San Pedro dance instructor who pledged to groom the girl for stardom. But now the mother, suspicious of the coach, has changed her mind. She has taken Misty back home and gone to court to keep the coach away.

Sylvia DelaCerna's motion for a temporary restraining order against the teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and her husband, Patrick, will be heard Monday in Torrance Superior Court.

Meanwhile, Misty has taken the extraordinary step of filing another motion to become emancipated from the custody of her mother--a move DelaCerna claims is the result of Cynthia Bradley's brainwashing.

The Bradleys say they only want to see Misty's burgeoning talent handled adroitly--not by a mother struggling to raise two other children in a Gardena motel. They threaten to sue DelaCerna to uphold the management contract she signed.

In the eye of this legal storm sits Misty, whose mother now takes her to another dance studio. These days, the girl says, it's hard to concentrate on her ballet. She gets stomachaches and migraines when she thinks about the harsh allegations being made by the adults around her.

Earlier this month, she ran away from home for several days, trying to sort out her thoughts. For now, though, she has returned to live with her mother, brother and sister as she continues to pursue her dream of a job with American Ballet Theatre.

"I'm just so confused," she said, holding back tears. "Cindy and Patrick tell me things, and I believe them and understand, and then my Mom tells me things and--I don't know, it's tough being caught in the middle."

The tug of war has disturbed members of the local dance community, many of whom see a potential tragedy: a rare talent ruined by competing ambitions.


"When somebody is a star property--and Misty Copeland is just that--everybody wants ownership, everyone wants a piece of her, to get recognition and bask in the glow of the star," said Barbara Haig, special projects producer for the L.A. Music Center and coordinator of the Spotlight Awards.

DelaCerna says she too wants Misty to fulfill her potential but is tired of watching a savvy couple exert too much control over an impressionable girl. She says they have exploited Misty by promoting her too quickly and have turned her against her mother by belittling DelaCerna's intelligence in front of the girl.

"This woman is obsessed with my daughter," said DelaCerna, 41, who works at a Gardena photocopy store. "And she's ruining my whole family to get what she wants. But she cannot have Misty. I won't let her."

Bradley, 37, who trained at the Atlanta Ballet and has taught dance for 15 years, says she is only trying to shape a young talent greater than any she has ever encountered. "I know what it takes to make a dancer," she said.

She said she and her husband asked no money of DelaCerna and paid for Misty's badly needed dental work and chiropractic care--only to have Misty snatched back once she was on the cusp of stardom.

"Misty told us that living with my husband and I was the first time in her life when she had no worries," Bradley said. "I don't know why the mother just couldn't enjoy her own daughter's success."

After earning the Spotlight Award in ballet this March--when she won over 60 other dancers--Misty was flooded with offers, including a five-week scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School.

Music Center producer Haig said Misty's victory was stunning not only because she was a virtual novice, but because she seemed to be a blank slate about ballet. In interviews before the competition she could not answer questions such as, "Who's your favorite ballerina?"

"She told the event's official interviewer she'd never even seen a ballet--and he asked me how she could be a finalist. She knew nothing of the genre," Haig recalled.

"I told him she was a natural and didn't think about what she did. Well, he was standing next to me backstage at the show. Misty danced for 15 seconds when his jaw dropped. He turned to me and said, 'You're right, she's magic.' "

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