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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

Misty was inconsolable. Bradley, loath to let go of her promising new student, asked if the girl could move in with her in order to keep training. After initial resistance, DelaCerna agreed, giving Cindy and Patrick Bradley temporary care of her daughter. Misty moved into their condominium near the beach, sharing a bedroom with their 2-year-old son, Wolf. Soon Misty was lighting Hanukkah candles with Wolf. Her face began appearing in Bradley family portraits. "I made it clear that once I had a car, she'd be living at home," says DelaCerna. "But as that time drew closer they started saying, 'She can't live at home. You don't know how to care for a prodigy.' "

The Bradleys don't dispute having felt that way. As they tell it, they rescued Misty not only from a cramped motel room but from cultural deprivation. Cindy had been a working dancer with companies in San Diego, Virginia and Kentucky; her husband, a high school art teacher, also trained as a dancer and together they ran the school, taught classes and choreographed shows. They gave Misty books about ballet, showed her videos of Balanchine star Gelsey Kirkland and introduced her to shrimp scampi. "I used to say I was preparing her to have dinner with the Queen," says Cindy, curled on her couch with the family poodle, Misha.

When Misty saw the American Ballet Theatre's "Don Quixote" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, dancer Paloma Herrera became her idol, rivaled only by Mariah Carey. Misty would absorb every detail. "Paloma Herrera didn't take her partner's hand at the end of the pas de deux, she balanced on her own," she recalls, retrieving this bit of data not from the part of the brain that retains "Things Paloma Did" but rather, it seems, from the mental file labeled "Things I Must Do."

In the 10th grade, Misty left school in favor of independent study and devoted most of her time to dancing, tearing through a $45 pair of shoes every five days. Her supplies and expenses often were paid by patrons Liz and Dick Cantine. Liz had been Misty's drill team coach at Dana Middle School in San Pedro but her real love was ballet, and when she heard that Misty had begun dancing, she was thrilled. She became DelaCerna's advisor on the unfamiliar world of ballet and an intermediary as the relationship between DelaCerna and the Bradleys grew antagonistic.

DelaCerna came to resent the Bradleys even as she took pride in what her daughter accomplished with them. Cindy Bradley felt that once Misty moved in, DelaCerna became unconcerned with raising her daughter. "She never called the teacher during the year Misty did independent study," Bradley says. The Cantines, at least at first, thought the unorthodox living situation was Misty's best option and tried to persuade DelaCerna to let Misty stay with her teachers. "Even though Sylvia felt that Cindy looked down on her," says Dick Cantine, "we felt Cindy was good for Misty, and Misty was happy."

By Misty's own account, she was happy, particularly onstage. "I just loved it," she says. "I loved the applause." After only eight months of lessons she danced Clara in the "Nutcracker," and the press took note. "We were selling 2,000 tickets to a neighborhood company that had just been around for a couple of years. She was a draw," says Cindy Bradley. Bigger parts followed--Kitri in "Don Quixote" and a featured role in "The Chocolate Nutcracker," an African American telling of the story, narrated by actress/choreographer Debbie Allen. "She's an incredibly gifted ballerina. . . . She's a child who dances in her soul," says Allen. "I can't imagine her doing anything else."

The ballet establishment agreed. Six companies--including the Joffrey, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem--offered her places in their 1998 summer programs. She accepted a scholarship from San Francisco, and Cindy Bradley escorted her there. DelaCerna says that when she visited her daughter over Fourth of July weekend, the school's administration was surprised to learn that Misty had a guardian other than Cindy.

At summer's end, DelaCerna moved Misty home. Back at the Sunset Inn, the mother and daughter fought frequently. Once, Misty complained to Cindy that she hadn't had a vegetable in a week. Finally, DelaCerna decided it was time to look for new teachers.

On a Sunday, DelaCerna called Bradley to inform her of the decision. The following morning, Misty left for class with the Bradleys as usual, but instead of going to the studio, they met with a lawyer who could facilitate Misty's emancipation, a procedure common among young actors who want to control their earnings. Emancipation would give her the legal rights of an adult. She no longer would need her mother's permission to dance with the Bradleys. She could choose with whom she wanted to live. "We discussed it as a family," says Bradley. "I would have adopted her if she had wanted."

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