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COVER STORY

Solo in the City

Misty Copeland's career has been a nasty Squabble Over Who is Best Suited to Develop Her Prodigious Ballet Skills. This Summer, the Teenage Dancer Set Out to Create her Own Destiny on the Stages of New York City.

December 05, 1999|ALLISON ADATO | Allison Adato is based in New York City. This is her first piece for the magazine

Tonight the girl has styled her hair like Juliet. Two braids are drawn away from her face like curtain ties, fastened in back over a cascade of waves. Outfitted in a silver tube top, a narrow skirt and this summer's adolescent imperative of clunky black sandals, she takes in the mahogany balconies of the Metropolitan Opera House and clutches at a program for the visiting Kirov Ballet. It is her first time at Lincoln Center, and she is here to see "Giselle." Like many classical ballets, it tells of a young woman too pure or passionate or ethereal to exist in this world--she must be transformed into a sylph or a swan or, in this case, a ghost. But the girl with warm, serious eyes that brighten mischievously when she smiles is not thinking about the story line. She is studying the choreography, executed with Russian perfectionism, and comparing each step with her own repertoire of moves: have it. . . . have it. . . . need it. . . . have it.

Three weeks later, in the less-grand surroundings of a college auditorium, the young dancer makes her New York debut, performing with the other teenage members of American Ballet Theatre's Summer Intensive program. "Sensuous, lyrical dancing," a New York Times critic will write of her work in a pas de deux set to music by Philip Glass. But while she enjoys the challenging new choreography, her dreams remain with Giselle and the other tutued principal roles of the classical stage. ABT, the company she hopes eventually to join, has never had a black Giselle. This girl with the mocha skin, the product of African, Italian and German heritage, might someday be the first.

Most dancers with professional promise were children who traded their diapers for pink tights. One who began training at the advanced age of 13 is a near-impossibility. But here is Misty Copeland, who walked into her first class in San Pedro just a little more than three years ago. Barely grazing five feet, looking younger than her 17 years, she has body proportions--small head, long neck, compact torso, long limbs--that make her a thoroughbred for ballet. After a month she was in pointe shoes, a toe-blistering reward for which the average girl waits at least two years. After three months, before she had ever attended a ballet performance, she was onstage. South Bay newspapers celebrated the home-grown star and major companies offered her scholarships. "I think she is born to be a dancer," says Lola de Avila, the former head of the San Francisco Ballet's school, where Misty studied the summer before last. Blessed with the rare combination of good genes, raw talent and the passionate attention of excellent instructors, Misty had seemed, at that moment, poised to reach her dream unimpeded.

*

When Misty was 13, her mom, Sylvia Delacerna, allowed her to fill the hours between the last bell at school and the end of DelaCerna's workday by hanging out at the Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro. Cynthia Bradley, who ran a small local ballet school, gave a free weekly class at the club, and one afternoon she saw the girl watching quietly from high in the bleachers. She encouraged Misty to take a spot at the barre, wearing socks and borrowed gym clothes. That session prompted Bradley to send notes home to DelaCerna, offering Misty a full scholarship.

It was a generous offer and Misty--who still seems surprised when someone goes out of the way to help her--recognized the opportunity. But there was a problem. "I didn't like her from the beginning," DelaCerna says of Bradley. "Her elitist attitude, her snobbiness." DelaCerna had studied dance as a girl at an all-black school in Missouri but gave it up to start cheerleading, eventually for her hometown Kansas City Chiefs. She quit at 20 when she became pregnant with her first child. After eight years and three more children--Misty was then the youngest--DelaCerna fled a marriage gone bad and moved to California, where she now sells office equipment. She remarried and divorced two more times, having one child each with her second and third husbands ("I always wanted a lot of kids," she says, "so I was happy").

When Misty met Bradley, DelaCerna had just moved into the Sunset Inn, a residential motel in Gardena where she was sharing one bedroom with four of her six children (her eldest, Erica, lived on her own; the youngest, Cameron, was in his father's care). DelaCerna didn't have a car. Getting Misty to and from the studio meant that she or Erica would have to take a two-hour bus ride with her. After a few weeks, DelaCerna decided the lessons had to end.

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