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Book Review: Misty Copeland Pens a Heartfelt Memoir About Her Mentor in ‘Wind at My Back’

Book Review: Misty Copeland Pens a Heartfelt Memoir About Her Mentor in ‘Wind at My Back’

Misty Danielle Copeland, born in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, doesn’t look like someone who’s been through what she’s been through. She is the personification of dreams that really do come true. From living in a grungy motel room and struggling with her five siblings for a place to sleep on the floor, Copeland was a prodigy. She was dancing within three months of taking her first dance class and performing professionally in just over a year: an achievement unheard of for any classical dancer.

After years of training and overcoming what could have been a career-ending injury, in the fall of 2014, she made history as the first Black woman to perform the lead role in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake, during the company’s inaugural tour to Australia. Copeland reprised the role in June 2015, as well as debuted as Juliet in Romeo & Juliet. The same year, she was promoted to principal dancer, making her the first Black woman to ever be promoted to the position in the ABT’s 75-year history.

All of her hard-earned success has solidified Copeland’s significance in the world of ballet and Black history.  Not only that, but the mark she has made gives honor to those who came before her and highlights the importance of extending a hand to the next generation of ballet dancers by being a mentor.

What she has accomplished is a big deal. The weight of her responsibility doesn’t go unnoticed.

Her new book, The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson, is a gift to Copeland’s mentor. The book tackles racism, the current climate in the United States, being Black in ballet, and Copeland’s struggles as a principal dancer in the ABT. But the focus of the book is more on the mentor-mentee relationship between Wilkinson and Copeland, as Wilkinson guided Copeland and showed her that perseverance would reap rewards.

What’s beautiful about this memoir is seeing how these two women developed an unbreakable friendship. It strengthened my respect and admiration for Copeland and allowed me the opportunity to learn about Wilkinson’s life.

For six years, Copeland was often the only Black dancer at the ABT. Like most Black women who find themselves as the “only,” she got used to it. Although racism is common in dance, Copeland never allowed that to make her settle. Her dream was bigger than that. Being a part of the ABT kept her steady in a place where her dreams could come true, and she realized that she was representing something much bigger than herself. Her presence was proof to Black girls that they too could be ballerinas when the world was telling them no.

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Then, Copeland met Wilkinson.

Wilkinson was born in 1935 to an educated, upper-class Black couple who set her on a course of ballet when she was just five years old. The emotion of ballet is what pulled her in, and she knew that she wanted to dance. She was trained in the School of American Ballet by Madame Swoboda, one of the Bolshoi Theatre’s premier ballerinas.

Her dream was met with opposition, as she was told that it was “never going to happen” because she was “colored.” Despite it all, she too persevered and began touring with a professional group that took her to the South, where she fought for her dignity and endured threats on her life. Still, she danced and never stopped. When she met Copeland, she became a supportive, loving, wise, thoughtful, and influential mentor.

It was difficult to read about the opposition both women faced from inside their dance companies, as well as from the general public. There are stories of physical danger, career limitations, and psychological damage endured on their journeys. Still, I believe that young women particularly will find this book inspiring. It is a message of never giving up and pushing toward your dreams.

Yes, it is a book. But more poignantly, it’s a love letter to an elder trailblazer with grace. Copeland, a trailblazer herself, weaves the story of her career with that of Wilkinson, whose work was basically hidden in plain sight for decades. In telling Wilkinson’s story, Copeland also writes of the friendship the two women had and how Wilkinson pushed Copeland to soar to greater heights, career-wise and personally. This is what gives the book an intimate feel.

Having read Copeland’s first book, Life in Motion, I was excited to see she’d come out with another book and was blown away by the parts of her own and Wilkinson’s life that she shares with us. I cannot imagine what it is like to be a Black ballerina today, let alone in the 1950s in the Jim Crow South. Both women’s stories are powerful, and I appreciate Copeland for sharing Wilkinson’s story with us. I don’t think I would have learned about her otherwise. Hopefully, we can take a bit of both of these women’s love, grace, and poise for our own journeys.

I highly recommend this book with 5 out of 5 stars. If you have any knowledge or background in dance, this book will be more meaningful. However, it is a book for anyone wanting to be inspired by two Black women trailblazers in American ballet.

The Wind at My Back is available now at Amazon.

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