Misty Copeland Is American Ballet Theatre's First Black Female Principal Dancer

Misty Copeland had her New York debut as the lead role in "Swan Lake" last week.

ByABC News
June 30, 2015, 6:20 PM

— -- A fervent dream became reality today for ballerina Misty Copeland as she became the first black female principal dancer in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre.

It is one of the highest honors for a performer.

"I'm just so honored, so extremely honored," Copeland said today during a news conference. "My dream has been ABT [American Ballet Theatre] since I was 13. ... Now I feel like I can breathe."

Copeland, 32, who calls herself an "unlikely ballerina," was born in Missouri and grew up in poverty in the Los Angeles area with her five siblings and single mother. She never had the traditional classical ballet training that begins in childhood. She began dancing in gym socks on a basketball court at the age of 13, when an instructor took notice and encouraged her to seek formal training.

Fans learned the story behind the ballet powerhouse when she appeared in an Under Armour sportswear ad as a narrator read a typical rejection letter that Copeland had received.

In August 2014, she shared with ABC News some of the negative comments she'd encountered.

"I'm black. We [blacks] don't exist in the ballet world. I'm too muscular. I'm too short. My bust is too big," she said then.

But Copeland said she never let those insults sway her.

Within two years of beginning ballet, she was winning dance competitions. And just four years after that first class, Copeland landed a spot with the American Ballet Theatre, one of the most prestigious companies in the world.

"It's just been a very long road," Copeland said today. "It has not been an overnight sensation, not at all. It's been 13, 14 years of extremely hard work."

In 2007, Copeland made history by becoming the third black female soloist at the American Ballet Theatre. In 2014, she released a memoir titled "Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina."

This year, Time magazine put her on its cover but many wondered whether Copeland, a soloist at ABT for eight years, would ever make the leap to principal dancer.

On June 24, Copeland made her New York debut in the role of Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake" at the Metropolitan Opera House. She said today that her path to becoming a principal ballerina had been a long one but it was just the beginning.

"I'm just excited to continue to do the roles that I've gotten to do this season -- and do more -- and to continue to grow as an artist and hopefully see more brown dancers come into the company in my lifetime," she said.