Ballet Star Misty Copeland On Injury and Success

Misty Copeland

American ballet star Misty Copeland has overcome many obstacles to reach her current level of success and recognition. Alongside breaking socio-cultural boundaries and smashing traditional ballet stereotypes to achieve international star status, Copeland also battled serious debilitating dance injuries that threatened to prematurely end her prodigal career.

Copeland first came up against the career obstacle of injury in the formative years of her professional dance career. Aged 19 Copeland was dancing with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York when she first incurred major injury. "I fractured a bone in my back during a rehearsal. It took me a year to recover from the injury and return to dancing." 

For many talented dancers, significant injury marks the end of a promising career. However Copeland remained determined, working with rehabilitation experts over the course of a year to make an impressive recovery. Initially only performing to what she considered "80%" of her full ability, Copeland was nonetheless able to pursue her career and achieve further victory in the dance world. Of the experience she commented "The path to your success is not as fixed and inflexible as you think." 

As with any athlete who has endured the challenge of overcoming injury and the resulting reduction in performance ability, there is a tremendous struggle that transcends the physical. Maintaining a positive attitude is key to recovery and future achievement. "As a ballerina, you always stand in front of the mirror searching for flaws. You're so used to criticism—from yourself and others—that it's hard to remember that your body is something to enjoy, not just a never-ending fix-it project." 

However after a tough year of rehabilitation and recovery, Copeland continued to regain lost strength and further flourish as a talented dancer. "Over the next few years, things at ABT just got better. I became a soloist with the company—the first black dancer to do so in more than two decades. And in 2012 I landed my biggest role yet, headlining in Firebird." Achieving the role of principle dancer in Firebird was a momental career milestone for Copeland, particularly having endured significant injury that could've marked a premature end to her career. 

However this victory was soon to be met with adversity once more. In fall 2014, Copeland began to feel weakness in her left shin during rehearsals for Firebird. Although she believed it to be the onset of a stress fracture, Copeland chose to dance through the pain - staying true to the adage 'the show must go on'. Fearful that raising concerns of her potential injury would cost her the part, Copeland resolved to continue rehearsals and make it to the opening night of performance. Not only was her leading role personally significant as a professional dancer, but also culturally poignant. "I knew how important the night was - beyond me, for African-American women in ballet." 

Having endured the pain of dancing through the opening night, Copeland consulted a doctor after the show. The diagnosis unfortunately confirmed her concerns, and she was diagnosed with a "dreaded black-line fracture." Worse than she had initially thought, Copeland's injury was a near-complete break which required surgery. Her initial reaction was denial.

Copeland was operated on for her injury in October 2014, undergoing a new procedure at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. The operation involved receiving a plate which was screwed into her tibia. To enhance recovery, the procedure also involved bone marrow extractions from her hip which was injected into the site of the fractures. Dealing with the stress of major injury and surgery at such a pivotal point in her career was a huge physical and mental obstacle to overcome. "I couldn't tell myself that [I wouldn't recover]. I had to almost lie to myself because I didn't know what was going to happen. I had to say, "You're going to," and just keep working. [I remember] how dark that time was for me." Copeland spent weeks learning to walk again, and is now back to performing live and on television appearances.

Her recovery is inspiring and a remarkable example of the strength of human will, discipline and commitment. Reflecting on recovery, she commented: "To see how far I've come, it's really cool. You get so caught up in the pain you feel every day [during recovery] that you forget at one point it was much worse." 

In order to negate the high injury risks faced by ballet dancers in the future and to avoid dance injuries, Copeland incorporates a cross-training, complimentary exercise programme alongside her dance practice. "I take Pilates mat classes, [and] gyro tonics classes. I do some swimming as well." Expert sports rehabilitation treatments are also a vital component of her recovery plan. "We have to see chiropractors and get massages. I'll do it as much as I can. As much as we work to get the muscles to react a certain way and train to be in top form, we also have to get the muscles to release." 

Misty Copeland is an icon to many of overcoming adversity and striving for prominence and victory against the odds. An inspirational figure in overcoming the obstacles of injury and limitations, Copeland's story is an outstanding example of physical and mental strength. 

 

"You can do anything you want, even if you are being told negative things. Stay strong and find motivation." 

- Misty Copeland