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Meeting Misty Copeland, My ‘Shero’

During a health crisis, a connection with the famed ballerina brings joy


One day during the first week of March 2017, I noticed on my Facebook newsfeed that ballet dancer Misty Copeland was going to be appearing at the Union Square Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York City on March 21 to discuss her recently published book, Ballerina Body, and sign purchased copies.

“Wow,” I thought to myself, “I need to try to go to this.” Then, I realized I had an appointment with my post-lumpectomy radiation doctor on the same day that I really couldn’t miss.

I wondered if I could still manage to attend the book signing after the appointment. It would be a wonderful tonic for me to see the woman who was the embodiment of the ballerina I dreamed of being when I was a child — graceful, outstanding and brown like me — and a relief from thinking about fighting cancer for one day.

We were members of different generations, but we shared years of wearing pink “flesh tone” tights that did not match our complexions.

Looking at the notice again, I realized that wristbands to attend the event would be given with the purchase of her book starting at 9 a.m. which was hours before I could get to 17th Street and Union Square from Long Island, even though the actual event would not begin until 7 p.m.

“Oh well, this isn’t going to happen,” I grumbled out loud.

Misty Copeland: A Shared Inspiration for Us

I stopped thinking about the event until a few days later, when the doctor’s office contacted me. My doctor needed to reschedule my appointment!  Providence had stepped in, and now I could go directly to Barnes & Noble after completing a day of substitute teaching in Queens.

Sure enough, luck was with me, and as I walked into the bookstore by 4:15 to purchase the book, the clerk at the cash register handed me my wristband. I was so excited, I felt like attempting a “grande jeté” right at the counter, but thought my 56-year-old legs might balk after teaching all day, and I didn’t want to shock the clerk.

So instead, I happily walked away from the counter after inquiring which level of the bookstore would be the location for the Copeland book event. I went up to the fourth floor, and scurried to find a decent seat. I found one next to a young woman who had a slim athletic body and caramel brown complexion. She looked like she was in her mid-20s, which would make her only a few years older than my daughter.

In the hour left before the presentation, we struck up a conversation. She told me that she was not a former amateur ballet dancer like I was, but was “really into CrossFit training” and became aware of Misty Copeland from her Under Armour ad campaign.

She said, “I’m just healing from an injury that forced me to step away from my usual level of workouts. I love listening to Misty’s take on her career and overcoming injuries.” I told her that I had spent a big chunk of my youth taking classes at American Ballet Theatre (ABT).

We both smiled, as we waited for the appearance of the poised and dynamic woman who was “representing” for us; in 2015, Misty Copeland was the first African American to be named a principal dancer at ABT.

Validation of a Bond

meeting Misty Copeland
Leslie Hunter-Gadsden meeting Misty Copeland

Soon, Misty arrived to a bookstore packed with a multi-ethnic audience of adults, teens and children. Petite with perfectly toned arms, wearing a sleeveless blouse, she spoke of some of her own challenges and ways she had found to keep her body and mind healthy, which was the main thrust of her book.

After a few questions from the audience, the Barnes & Noble representative explained where we should line up to get our books signed.  My chance had finally arrived to meet Misty face-to-face. As the line moved slowly and I inched closer to my “shero,” I was tingling with anticipation.

When it was my turn, as Misty began signing my book, I bent my head closer to her and said, “I too studied at American Ballet Theatre, as a child and teen in the 1970’s when I was one of the few students who looked like us.”

She paused, looked at me, and gave me a bittersweet smile followed by an intake of breath and an audible, “Ahhhh,” that let me know that she felt what I was saying.

In that moment, Misty Copeland validated our bond of being brown girls in the often lily white world of classical ballet.

We were members of different generations, but shared years of wearing pink “flesh tone” tights that did not match our complexions. Then, we were striving for uniformity, before celebrating the fact that we would always stand out.

In a few minutes, I moved on and she was autographing the next book. But I was floating on air with the knowledge that we had connected, if only briefly.

I traveled back to Queens, thrilled that I had made the effort to meet her.

Hanging on while riding the F subway train, I had a smile on my face and pirouettes in my heart — a middle-aged lover of dance and former child and teen ballerina morphed into one.

Thoughts of my completed lumpectomy and the radiation that was yet to come were a million miles away, as I swayed a bit to the rhythm of the subway ride.

By Leslie Hunter-Gadsden
Leslie Hunter-Gadsden is a journalist and educator with over 25 years experience writing for print and online publications.  She has covered business topics for several trade publications and Black Enterprise magazine.

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