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Life in Motion

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Life in Motion includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Misty Copeland. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    Introduction

    When thirteen-year-old Misty Copeland first walks into a ballet class at the Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro, California, she has no idea that this will change her world. Her chaotic home life, filled with five siblings and her mother’s changing husbands and boyfriends, is in stark contrast to the control, beauty, and grace Misty experiences in ballet. A seeming ugly duckling, with a small head, sloping shoulders, and big feet, Misty learns that she has the ideal body for ballet. She has the uncanny ability to copy complex steps perfectly. Life in Motion is Misty’s personal account of her journey to become the first African American soloist at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in more than twenty years. Misty relates the challenges she faced, from living on food stamps to a bitter, highly publicized custody battle between her mother and her dance teacher. Through it all, Misty remains true to herself and committed to her goal. Her remarkable story will inspire anyone struggling against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Misty Copeland is proof positive that with perseverance, dedication, and a little bit of luck, dreams can come true.  

    Topics & Questions for Discussion 

    1. Misty’s relationships with the male figures in her life often bring her strength. Misty describes her wonderful relationship with Harold, her mother’s third husband. As she says, “Memories of Harold are never cloudy, only clear and bright.” Her relationship with Olu brings her strength and confidence, especially in finding her place at ABT and becoming a mentor to others. Why do you think these influences are powerful for her? Can you contrast them with the less-positive legacy of her mother’s husbands and boyfriends?
     
    2. Misty contrasts her shyness to the confidence she feels dancing and performing. Of her childhood she says, “I felt awkward, like I didn’t fit in anywhere, and I lived in constant fear of letting my mother down, or my teachers, or myself.” How do you think her introverted personality affects her as a performer? Can anxiety become a strength, rather than a weakness? How does she learn to cope with it?
     
    3. Misty finds support and encouragement from ballet teacher Cindy Bradley, who invites Misty to leave her mother’s meager, overcrowded apartment to live with the Bradley family. What could Cindy provide Misty that her mother could not? In what ways does Misty connect with other maternal or supportive figures after she leaves the Bradleys?
     
    4. Misty has a complex relationship with her mother: “I love my mother, but I’ve never really understood her.” Their relationship is taxed to the breaking point when Misty’s mother forces her to leave the Bradleys and return home. Eventually Misty withdraws her petition to become a legally emancipated minor that Cindy helped her request. Do you think this was entirely Misty’s decision? How did this painful process affect Misty’s dancing career? Her relationship with her mother?
     
    5. Misty’s childhood was one of intermittent poverty and rootlessness. Her mother was continually running away from bad situations. How did this affect the way Misty dealt with obstacles later in life?
     
    6. Consider Misty’s many experiences with prejudice. Her mother’s fourth husband, Robert, displayed a penchant for abusive racial epithets, and Misty finds bigotry pervasive even in the world of ballet, where she must often paint her face lighter for performances. To what degree do you think racism has affected Misty’s career as a dancer? What have her experiences taught her?
     
    7. Did Misty’s discussion of the myth of eating disorders and ballet surprise you? Discuss that and any other preconceived notions you may have had about ballet before reading this book. Which were dispelled? Which were proven accurate?
     
    8. When discussing her friend and fellow dancer Eric Underwood, Misty wonders if what led them both to dance was serendipity or destiny. Which do you think it was for Misty? What does Misty seem to believe?
     
    9. Misty says, “Mommy had always been afraid that I’d given up my childhood for a dream.” Do you think she did? If so, was it worth it?
     
    10. Misty admits to being a perfectionist since childhood. By the end of the book, how does Misty come to terms with the idea of perfection?
     
    11. To this day, ABT has never had an African American principal dancer. What do you think of Misty’s campaign to be the first?
     
    12. The book begins and ends with Misty’s dancing the role of the Firebird. What is the significance of the Firebird, both her performance and the character, to Misty?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Get into the spirit of things: find a local ballet studio and attend a recital, or even take a beginner’s class. Many schools offer classes for adult novices. If you have questions about ballet, there are many helpful Internet sites. ABT’s website offers a dictionary of ballet terms, some with video illustrations (http://www.abt.org/education/dictionary/). Britain’s Royal Ballet has uploaded many videos on the and ballet steps and terms and the history of ballet; see https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7E40E6E2DAB561B5 and https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFEuShFvJzBww3lVbFABGB0HbIxNQ2 TiA.
     
    2. Have the members of your group talk about any early experiences with the arts—dance lessons, musical instrument classes, visual arts lessons, etc.—then compare your experiences. Is any member of your group still practicing his or her art? Discuss what art added to your lives.   
     

    A Conversation with Misty Copeland 

    In the book you are very candid about the struggles of your early childhood. Do you think those experiences were a help or a hindrance to your determination to become a ballerina?  

    They were absolutely a help. You need perseverance, determination, and drive to succeed in the ballet world. All of my faults and insecurities as a child were highlighted by ballet and it pushed me to prove myself despite them. In the end, wanting to please people, striving for perfection, even survival, are all attributes a ballerina needs to have.

    In addition to your work with ABT, you also discuss working with Prince, being a judge on a national TV dance competition, and working with the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, which helped introduce ballet to a wider audience. What kind of results are you seeing from helping to make this art form more popular and democratic?  

    The most impressive is seeing a more diverse audience at the Metropolitan Opera House. That is huge for ballet, as well as seeing a ton of brown ballerinas willing to step into this secluded world because they can see spaces for themselves now.

    You express a great deal of affection for New York City from almost the moment you arrived for ABT’s summer intensive program. Do you still feel the same way about it?  

    I feel the same. The yearning I felt while away from NYC as an adolescent is a bit less dramatic now. I’m always happy to be home here, but I don’t feel as though I’m missing out on the fast pace energy and growth of the city as I once did.

    Many of your awards and accomplishments in ballet are even more remarkable because you are often the first African American to achieve them. In what ways do you think the world of ballet is changing for future performers? For the audience?  

    I think it will be after my retirement from ballet that I will realize the weight put on me by being the first. I am so “in it” now, and focused on the challenges of becoming what I need to be from day to day, that I don’t float above myself and see the scarier picture of not living up to expectations. But things are changing daily. It’s exciting. To see myself reflected in the younger generation of ballet dancer helps give me hope.

    Although they are both art forms, ballet and writing are extremely different. Did you enjoy the writing experience? Were there any particular challenges for you?  

    I really enjoyed it. I’ve always enjoyed writing in journals. It was my way of expressing myself before I really knew how to speak up for myself more publicly, so the whole experience was very cathartic. The most challenging part for me was letting go of the story and putting it out into the world, and also giving Charisse Jones, my coauthor, the freedom to do what she does and just help me write! It was scary to trust someone with my life story.

    In the book you confess the very human tendency to focus on the rare negative comment or criticism amid a sea of praise. Did you read the reviews for your book? How did your experiences with reviews for your performances affect the way you handled your book reviews?  

    If anything I’m even more prepared for my book reviews because I’ve experienced those performance reviews. The book stuff is a bit different in that these are my life experiences, so it’s hard to imagine someone would judge or critique another person’s life experiences by any objective measure. It’s another thing to be a part of a subjective art form where you have to be thick skinned enough to handle criticism. But to have someone place judgment on an experience they never had personally is strange.

    In addition to this memoir, you’ve also written a children’s book. What stories do you dream of telling next?  

    The history of minorities, especially brown people, in the classical ballet world. I want to share my experiences in this unique setting as well as undiscovered and untold stories of generations of stories before me.

    This book was a national bestseller, and while on tour, you had the opportunity to engage with many of your fans one-on-one. What advice or insight would you like to leave your readers that you might not have addressed in this memoir’s pages?  

    That I’m nowhere near the be-all and end-all for ballet. I just want to spark interest in an unlikely audience and to bring awareness and education to those who may not otherwise feel welcomed.

About the Author

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland made history by becoming the third African-American ballerina for the American Ballet Theatre, the first in decades. A recipient of the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Arts and an inductee into the Boys and Girls Club Alumni Hall of Fame, she currently lives in New York City. Visit her online at MistyCopeland.com.

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