Trapped in a Dispiriting Dance of Wills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perched on a chair in a Gardena dance studio after yet another grueling six-hour workout, 15-year-old Misty Copeland looks simply ethereal, like one of those hand-painted porcelain figurines of a young ballerina.

Her accomplishments are just as breathtaking. Despite less than three years of dance experience, Misty won this year's Spotlight Award for gifted area high school ballet students--an unlikely victory that grabbed the attention of scouts from the famed Joffrey Ballet to New York and San Francisco dance companies.

Dance studios are supposed to be Misty's domain. But on this night, like too many others of late, there are tears forming in her eyes. The 78-pound prodigy is caught in the middle of a bitter custody dispute, torn between the tense emotional wills of two competing adults.

But this time it's not a Dad versus Mom argument. It's Mom versus coach.

Three years ago, Misty's mother, a struggling single parent, let her daughter move in with a San Pedro dance instructor who pledged to groom the girl for stardom. But now the mother, suspicious of the coach, has changed her mind. She has taken Misty back home and gone to court to keep the coach away.

Sylvia DelaCerna's motion for a temporary restraining order against the teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and her husband, Patrick, will be heard Monday in Torrance Superior Court.

Meanwhile, Misty has taken the extraordinary step of filing another motion to become emancipated from the custody of her mother--a move DelaCerna claims is the result of Cynthia Bradley's brainwashing.

The Bradleys say they only want to see Misty's burgeoning talent handled adroitly--not by a mother struggling to raise two other children in a Gardena motel. They threaten to sue DelaCerna to uphold the management contract she signed.

In the eye of this legal storm sits Misty, whose mother now takes her to another dance studio. These days, the girl says, it's hard to concentrate on her ballet. She gets stomachaches and migraines when she thinks about the harsh allegations being made by the adults around her.

Earlier this month, she ran away from home for several days, trying to sort out her thoughts. For now, though, she has returned to live with her mother, brother and sister as she continues to pursue her dream of a job with American Ballet Theatre.

"I'm just so confused," she said, holding back tears. "Cindy and Patrick tell me things, and I believe them and understand, and then my Mom tells me things and--I don't know, it's tough being caught in the middle."

The tug of war has disturbed members of the local dance community, many of whom see a potential tragedy: a rare talent ruined by competing ambitions.

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"When somebody is a star property--and Misty Copeland is just that--everybody wants ownership, everyone wants a piece of her, to get recognition and bask in the glow of the star," said Barbara Haig, special projects producer for the L.A. Music Center and coordinator of the Spotlight Awards.

DelaCerna says she too wants Misty to fulfill her potential but is tired of watching a savvy couple exert too much control over an impressionable girl. She says they have exploited Misty by promoting her too quickly and have turned her against her mother by belittling DelaCerna's intelligence in front of the girl.

"This woman is obsessed with my daughter," said DelaCerna, 41, who works at a Gardena photocopy store. "And she's ruining my whole family to get what she wants. But she cannot have Misty. I won't let her."

Bradley, 37, who trained at the Atlanta Ballet and has taught dance for 15 years, says she is only trying to shape a young talent greater than any she has ever encountered. "I know what it takes to make a dancer," she said.

She said she and her husband asked no money of DelaCerna and paid for Misty's badly needed dental work and chiropractic care--only to have Misty snatched back once she was on the cusp of stardom.

"Misty told us that living with my husband and I was the first time in her life when she had no worries," Bradley said. "I don't know why the mother just couldn't enjoy her own daughter's success."

After earning the Spotlight Award in ballet this March--when she won over 60 other dancers--Misty was flooded with offers, including a five-week scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School.

Music Center producer Haig said Misty's victory was stunning not only because she was a virtual novice, but because she seemed to be a blank slate about ballet. In interviews before the competition she could not answer questions such as, "Who's your favorite ballerina?"

"She told the event's official interviewer she'd never even seen a ballet--and he asked me how she could be a finalist. She knew nothing of the genre," Haig recalled.

"I told him she was a natural and didn't think about what she did. Well, he was standing next to me backstage at the show. Misty danced for 15 seconds when his jaw dropped. He turned to me and said, 'You're right, she's magic.' "

Watching Misty practice recently, Phoenix choreographer John Cristofori also sang her praises. "I'd say only one in 1,000, no, one in 10,000, has what it takes to be a real star," he said. "She's the one."

Misty was 4 when her mother bought her a pink tutu for Halloween. "She wouldn't take it off--even to let me wash it," DelaCerna said. "Finally, I had to hide it."

At 12, Misty took a free ballet class at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club and was spotted by the instructor: Cynthia Bradley.

"The moment I placed my hand on her foot, I saw the potential," Bradley said. "She'd never done ballet before, but her body could just hold its position. Her talent was raw, but she was obviously a natural."

Misty took classes with Bradley for three weeks--until her mother decided that the four-hour round-trip bus ride made them unfeasible.

Bradley, who said she was desperate not to let Misty's potential go to waste, begged her mother to let the girl live with her.

Recently divorced, DelaCerna had moved Misty and two more of her six children into a motel, sometimes working two jobs to support them. She could not afford a car. She said it was against her better judgment that she let Misty go.

Bradley describes her time with Misty as heavenly. Sharing a room with their young son, Wolf, her star student became an instant part of the family. Taking independent-study classes, she spent all week with the Bradleys, practicing from six to eight hours a day, and then went home on weekends.

"Misty was so close to us, but the Mom didn't like the relationship," Bradley said. "She would call and badger Misty. She didn't want her there."

DelaCerna said she didn't want Misty there because Bradley was forcing the mother out of the picture. She said Bradley took Misty on trips without her consent and would not allow Misty's younger brother to call the house because Bradley's son might get jealous.

"Cindy wanted total control," DelaCerna said. "She didn't even tell us about when her performances were, because she didn't want us there. She wasn't content just to be Misty's teacher. She wanted her lock, stock and barrel."

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This summer, after Misty returned from San Francisco, DelaCerna ordered her to call it quits with Bradley and move home.

By that time, though, Misty had already contacted a lawyer to file the emancipation papers.

Lawyer Steven Bartell confirmed that he had filed the papers in Los Angeles Superior Court but said a hearing date has not yet been set.

DelaCerna is so suspicious of Bartell that she has filed a separate motion for a temporary restraining order that would keep him from talking to her daughter.

"Misty didn't even know what the word 'emancipation' meant," the mother said. "We had to look it up in the dictionary. She was shocked when she learned it meant divorcing yourself from your family. The only thing Misty wants to do was keep dancing." Last week, Misty said she would like to live with her mother while continuing to study with the Bradleys. Asked if she still wants to be emancipated, she said, "Yeah . . . well, no. Before, I was really sure about it. Now I don't know anymore. Being around my Mom, things are different than what Cindy told me."

Misty wants to get everyone together in a room and talk things out. But her Mom won't hear of it.

The prodigy will celebrate her 16th birthday next month with a party. She wishes the Bradleys could be there. "But my mother says no," she said. "It's sad."

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