Cherry Peace stood, feet firmly planted at the stage door of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in October. She was waiting for Misty Copeland, who had just wrapped up a matinee performance of Paul Taylor’s “Company B” at the American Ballet Theater, to kick off her toe shoes and exit.
There was no sign of Ms. Copeland, but Ms. Peace, 52, a writer who had traveled from Reno, Nev., expressly to see her, stayed rooted to the spot, hoping, if not for an autograph, at least for a glimpse of her idol.
“When you get older,” she said, “there are certain things you want to do. Seeing Misty Copeland was on my bucket list.”
Ms. Peace was among legions of fans — schoolgirls and seniors, New Yorkers and visitors, balletomanes and oddly assorted thrill seekers — who had thronged to Lincoln Center to see Ms. Copeland perform, in the Taylor ballet, and as Odile/Odette in “Swan Lake,” a crowning role for many dancers, and the first in the company for a black ballerina.
Others were riveted as Ms. Copeland spun last summer across the Broadway stage as Ivy Smith in “On the Town,” her limited engagement sparking a surge in ticket sales. Audiences were no less transfixed to see Ms. Copeland, the subject of a documentary, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” overcome an injury that threatened to end her career.
Some fans could recite by rote fragments of the Misty Copeland canon: “They said her body type wasn’t right, but she just kept dancing,” Ms. Peace said, and went on to recite the by-now familiar catechism: “She was the first African-American to be named a principal dancer at the A.B.T.”
And the first classical dancer since Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland executed their perfect pas des deux in the 1970s to captivate a general audience.
You would have to have lived on Saturn’s seventh ring to have missed that fact, or for that matter, Ms. Copeland’s repeatedly told saga of hardship, perseverance and ultimate triumph — one she chronicled in her 2014 memoir “Life in Motion: an Unlikely Ballerina.” The book described her rise from a chaotic childhood, trailing her oft-married mother and six siblings from cramped apartments to roadside motels, chasing fame and excellence under the wing of a well-to-do benefactor, and selected at 17 as one in a handful of African-Americans to dance with the vaunted American Ballet Theater.
It was a story recycled many times, on “60 Minutes,” in a Time cover profile, in the pages of The New Yorker, and once more Dec. 17 on ABC, when Barbara Walters named Ms. Copeland as one of the 10 Most Fascinating People of 2015. To say nothing of a flurry of glossies that extolled Ms. Copeland as a fashion plate.
All that fevered attention reached a crescendo last summer when Ms. Copeland emerged, calves rippling and en pointe, as the unlikely subject of “I Will What I Want,” a commercial for Under Armour, the athletic wear brand, that drew four million views on YouTube within a week of its July release.
Indeed, and by Ms. Copeland’s own account, the last 12 months have been an annus mirabilis – a time during which she fulfilled a cherished goal.
“I’m not trying to dilute the ballet world,” she said last summer. “But for a long time I wanted to be at the forefront of pop culture.”
That Ms. Copeland, 33, has so swiftly hit her mark raises a question: Just how and why did such a metamorphosis occur?
Talent and drive played roles, of course, as did Ms. Copeland’s uncommon beauty and athleticism. And there was the matter of race. “Her blackness was a big part, obviously,” said Nelson George, the culture critic and director of “A Ballerina’s Tale.”
“She isn’t a conventional looking ballerina,” Mr. George said, her 5-foot-2 frame and womanly curves rendering her relatable to an ever-widening public. “She could be one of those athletic girls in your gym,” he said. “In your mind you could be that girl.”
But until this year, Ms. Copeland was little known outside the hermetic realm of dance.
“She was a star waiting to be identified,” said Kevin Plank, Under Armour’s chief executive, who signed her to the first of a series of commercials well before her reputation crested.
“She had that very special ‘it’ factor, but she was no longer 20 years old,” Mr. Plank said. “Like all of us, she had the same question: ‘Do people notice?’”
A handful of years ago, the vast public had not. Ms. Copeland had champions, to be sure, especially among a dwindling number of influential American dance critics.
“She is a deeply expressive artist, with a unique, lush and very personal way of moving,” Sarah L. Kaufman exulted in The Washington Post in February. “At its very best, her dancing transcends her body, leading us beyond her perfect pirouette to … well, the wonder of life.”
She also has detractors, “She’s admirable but without striking individuality,” Alastair Macaulay, a critic for The New York Times, wrote last June, adding, damningly, that her tendency of tucking her head down and looking hard in “Swan Lake,” “makes her look unclassical.”
No matter. Along with her talent, she had a story to sell.
It was, in the assessment of Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theater, “a fascinating human triumph story, less about being the first African-American dancer to become a principal with the company and more about the adversity she went through to obtain her dreams.”
In 2011, Gilda Squire, an entertainment publicist, attended a New Year’s Eve party and overheard portions of that narrative.
“They were talking about a black ballerina who danced en pointe on Prince’s piano,” Ms. Squire said. “None of the people knew her name. But what got the room interested, was the idea that ‘Wow, here’s an African-American dancer at one of the top companies in her world.’”
Ms. Squire, who at Ms. Copeland’s request became her manager (ballerinas don’t really have publicists, she explained), remembered that at the time: “‘The Black Swan’ and Natalie Portman were definitely on the radar. People were thinking about ballet more than they normally would.”
What better time, Ms. Squire reasoned, to try to get her into the mainstream: “That was my goal.”
She said she worked tirelessly, calling in favors, eventually scoring appearances for her client with Tavis Smiley, the African-American PBS talk-show host and on Madame Noire, a popular online lifestyle guide aimed at black women.
“It took about three months to get things off the ground,” Ms. Squire said, “but slowly they progressed.”
There were book deals: the first, “Firebird” an inspirational children’s story of the rewards of hard work and dedication; the second, Ms. Copeland’s memoir. A third, “Ballerina Body,” a health and fitness guide scheduled for release in 2017, is intended as a magnet to the myriad young women who have felt as Ms. Copeland once did, betrayed by their physiques.
Ms. Copeland’s compelling narrative was catnip to Mr. George, who began filming his documentary soon after her 2012 performance as a second-cast lead in “The Firebird.” It was to be her last, for a time at least. A serious injury and the insertion of a metal plate in her shin prompted speculation she might never return to the stage.
“I realized there’s an opportunity to document her journey back,” Mr. George recalled. “We had the best Hollywood version of her comeback you could possibly wish for. But the truth is, it could have ended very differently.”
A portion of Ms. Copeland’s spectacular leap to mainstream celebrity may be lodged in her character, deriving less from a conscious pursuit of fame than a driving self-doubt.
Ms. Copeland practices relentlessly — taking her place at the barre for five to seven hours each day, even on performance days. There’s no rest for a dancer, “no faking it in the ballet world,” as she said in an interview.
There is also a sort of evangelism at work. She is of mixed race, but, as Mr. George pointed out, she embraces her blackness, grasping every opportunity to speak out as a role model, getting out her message that a person’s so-called flaws, skin color among them, need be no hurdle to success.
“I will continue to talk about race,” she said. “I think that’s part of my purpose.”
While the ballet for most dancers is an all-consuming vocation, Ms. Copeland stands out for her passion to connect.
“She doesn’t live in a bubble,” Mr. McKenzie said. “Somehow she does not exclude the outside world.” On or off the stage, her credo, he said, “is ‘What can I learn today?’”
An article last Sunday about the American Ballet Theater dancer Misty Copeland misidentified the theater in which the dance company performs. It is the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, not the neighboring Metropolitan Opera House.