Misty Copeland on being a role model: 'It's not me. It's what I represent'

The groundbreaking ballerina of New York's American Ballet Theatre shares her favorite quote and opens up about her upbringing, her mentors and how the arts have influenced her life.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Samantha Kubota

When Misty Copeland started dancing, she was a young girl living in a motel.

She didn't know then that she would go on to become one of the premier ballet dancers in the world, but she had a big dream.

Copeland sat down with TODAY's Hoda Kotb to talk about one of her favorite quotes, "where you come from doesn't necessarily determine where you're going in life."

"I think people would assume that someone comes from a privileged background being a part of, you know, such an elite art form. But that's what's so amazing," Copeland said. "I think having the opportunity to be a part of something where you just don't see people like myself being represented in that space ... just to give them an example of what's possible — that you don't have to fit into this mold in order to be whatever it is you want to be."

Hoda and Misty Copeland chat like old friends!

Copeland went on to say she had a whole community of people behind her that helped her get to where she is today.

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"I have so many, like, amazing, like, fairy godmothers and brown women that have just been incredible mentors to me," she said. "Raven Wilkinson — who passed away last year — was a black ballerina, the first and only to dance in an all-white company at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s."

Copeland said she is happy to continue paying that spirit of goodwill forward and to set an example for generations to come.

"I think because I understand the bigger picture and that it's not me. It's what I represent," she said. "Even, older black women that come to me and they're just like, 'you're living what I wish I could've done ... I just feel like I'm dancing for so many people that weren't given the opportunities that I have."

Misty Copeland dances with Daniil Simkin in a 2017 performance of "The Nutcracker."Kevin Sullivan

For years, Copeland has been mentoring young women in the ballet world, but when Hoda asked if she feels like there's a lot on her shoulders as a trailblazer, she explained it's been a long road to get where she is.

"You know, it is what it is," Copeland said. "And just being on the stage is doing so much for the next generation."

Another favorite quote of Copeland's is "don't let other people's words define you."

She said it's hard in the spotlight for her, but she can see the impact cyberbullying has on young people too.

"People's words can be so powerful in impacting, like, your emotions and your confidence," she said. "And so I just often, I have to remind myself ... their words shouldn't impact you."

Hoda agreed, adding she sometimes will look at negative comments and "get an ouch."

"Do you, like, have a suit of armor on? Like, how do you stop it?" she asked Copeland.

"It's about, you know, taking care and, just being strong and being confident," Copeland replied. "Because we're human beings."

Copeland is back performing in the American Ballet Theatre's production of "The Nutcracker" in Costa Mesa, California, this holiday season.