Misty Copeland addresses next generation of dancers at McFadden Memorial Lecture

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Ballet dancer and author Misty Copeland was the featured speaker during the 45th Annual McFadden Memorial Lecture at the Madam Walker Legacy Center March 20, 2024. (Photo/Chloe McGowan)
Ballet dancer and author Misty Copeland was the featured speaker during the 45th Annual McFadden Memorial Lecture at the Madam Walker Legacy Center March 20, 2024. (Photo/Chloe McGowan).

Excited young students and dancers of color — and their parents — crowded the Madam Walker Legacy Center on March 20 for ballet dancer Misty Copeland.

The Indianapolis Public Library Foundation welcomed Copeland as the featured speaker for the 45th Annual Marian McFadden Memorial Lecture. Copeland, who made history in 2015 as the first Black woman promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, spoke about her life, career, books and hopes for the future generation of dancers in a fireside chat with local author Ashley C. Ford. 

“We’ve [dancers of color] always been here. We just haven’t been given a voice or a platform,” Copeland told the Recorder. “For people to hear us, there have been dancers of color speaking, coming up against these institutions way before me, and they’ve set the stage for me to be able to be in a position where I can speak up and speak out.”

The McFadden Lecture series, which brings authors to Indianapolis for community conversations, is funded in part by an endowment from the late Marian McFadden, who acted as director of the Library Foundation from 1945-1956, Shael Weidenbach, youth services and area resource manager for IndyPL, told the Recorder.

Misty Copeland sat down with local author Ashley C. Ford for a moderated discussion about the dancer’s life, career, books and hopes for the future generation. (Photo/Chloe McGowan)

“The library’s mission is to promote lifelong learning,” Weidenbach said. “There are people, of course, who are library fanatics and book fanatics, who, these lectures definitely speak to them. They’re the first ones to get the tickets. … But we try to also bring in authors that might hit a chord in the community.”

When choosing authors for the lecture series, Weidenbach said the Library tries to choose someone who is either “speaking to something that is currently happening in our community or somebody who is hitting a niche of people.” 

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“I knew that looking at the children in Marion County and, really, in my experiences working in Indianapolis public schools and things like that, I wanted to bring somebody who would be a hero to the kids in Marion County and particularly speak to the children of color,” Weidenbach said.

In early March, a pair of Copeland’s “pancaked” — or foundation covered — pointe shoes were inducted into the Smithsonian, making her one of two Black dancers to be honored in this way after Lauren Anderson’s shoes were added in honor of Black History Month in 2016.

“It’s a part of history and it’s an important piece, even today now, pointe shoes are being produced in other colors, which is incredible evolution and progress for the ballet world, but to have that as, like, this kind of symbol of the time, I think is so incredible,” Copeland said. “And then, of course, like, it’s amazing that they’re my shoes. It’s an honor; it’s really an honor.”

Outside of dance, Copeland continues to break boundaries as a New York Times bestselling author. Including her memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina” and children’s books “Firebird” and “Bunheads,” Copeland has authored or co-authored eight books — which made her an inspiring choice for the series, Weidenbach said.

Becoming an author was an “organic process,” Copeland said, as writing and journaling was her first form of creative expression growing up.

Despite having written a memoir and children’s books inspired by her own experiences, Copeland told the audience she does not see herself in her works. Instead, Copeland sees other people in the characters and books she writes, moving beyond her own experience.

Gregory Hill, CEO of the Indianapolis Public Library, presented Copeland with the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Award, which honors and “celebrates your contributions to art and literature and honors the impact of your work.”

Following the lecture, Copeland signed books for young dancers in the audience. (Photo/Chloe McGowan)

Inspiring the next generation of dancers to persevere so they might dance in a “free” way without feeling “held back because they don’t see themselves represented” is one of the reasons Copeland continues this work, she said, whether through her books or the Be Bold program through the Misty Copeland Foundation — which offers free ballet classes through Boys & Girls Clubs and similar community-based organizations.

“Because you want to set them up for success and give them a head start in a way a lot of Black and brown dancers of my generation and before me were not,” Copeland said. “That’s my hope, that they can see themselves as people, as individuals, as artists, and don’t need to be defined by those things.”

During the lecture, Ford weaved a beautiful, hilarious and genuine conversation with Copeland, touching on their similarities as Black women, published authors and Boys & Girls Club alumni. Together they discussed the importance of mentorship, Copeland’s writing process, inspirations and her current reading list.

The library made a concerted effort to connect with community groups, schools and dance organizations to give young dancers of color the opportunity to hear Copeland speak, Weidenbach said. Two students from Kids Dance Outreach asked Copeland her advice to the next generation and how she navigated being “a Black dancer in a white world.” 

To which Copeland answered, leaving the audience with this:

“A mentor of mine — she’s a former ballerina — would say to me often when I would get so wrapped up in what people were writing in newspapers and blogs and reviews, … ‘You have the power to not let other people’s words define you,’” Copeland said. “[Having] people in your life that love you that you can turn to to have conversations with and ask questions … those are the voices that matter.”

For more information about the McFadden Memorial Lecture series, or to watch the livestream, visit indypl.org/mcfadden. For more information about the Misty Copeland Foundation, visit mistycopelandfoundation.org.

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.