Ballet sensation Misty Copeland smiled groggily and cracked her long, callused toes. “I was at Grad Night until 8 a.m.,” the 17-year-old San Pedro dancer explained Friday. “I’m glad I stayed this year and got to experience graduating.”

A year ago, Copeland’s graduation was very much in doubt. The American Ballet Theater (ABT) had asked the once-in-a-generation talent to stay in New York. When Copeland made the difficult decision to remain with her mother and Torrance dance teacher Diane Lauridsen, everyone from ABC’s 20/20 to the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine predicted her career was doomed.

Well, guess what? As we speak, Copeland is staying with the Carmelite sisters near Lincoln Center and dancing with the ABT.

“It was the best decision she could have made,” Copeland’s mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, said Monday. “She got to go to prom, to the movies with her friends and have sleepovers.”

Copeland’s happy ending caps a painful journey after her astonishingly late start as a dancer at age 13. In 1998, a much-publicized custody war broke out between Copeland’s then-teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and her mother. The mother won.

“There a lot of stuff wrong in those articles,” Copeland shrugged off discussion of her high-profile case. “It’s all a big blur to me now, and I’m just glad it’s over with.” She would rather talk about the prom (tense, but fun — her date wanted to be more than a friend); Grad Night at Disneyland (she danced to everything from KROQ to Power 106); and her dance training (up to six hours a day, plus yoga and Pilates).

At 5 feet even and 95 pounds, Copeland looks like a champagne flute: a narrow stem, camouflaged by baggy cargo jeans, rising through an inverted disk of a stomach to broad muscled shoulders and a swanlike neck, set off by a long black ponytail. A perfect dancer’s body, which — combined with her musicality, coordination and stage presence — gives her a style The New York Times described as “lyrical, sensuous dancing.”

Walking over to the bureau to take down a picture of a tiny 4-year-old girl in a pink tutu, Copeland said that despite her late start, she always knew she wanted to be a ballerina.

“I wore that tutu for Halloween four years in a row,” she laughed. “I don’t know why we never got around to taking classes.”

Copeland shared a bedroom this past year with her 14-year-old sister, Lindsey, a budding tennis player. Lindsey’s side is wallpapered with ’N Sync posters; Copeland has stripped off her Mariah Carey collection.

“How am I going to get my Mariah cutout into a box?” Copeland wails.

Copeland is a little bit nervous about living in New York, but not about dancing.

“Sometimes when you have a good audience, they actually start to clap when you just walk out on the stage,” she said with a slow, radiant smile. “I love dancing for an audience. I feel like I’m part of the music.”

Rich Rights!

Much has been made of mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff’s newfound and not-a-little-demagogic opposition to the proposed consent decree with the Justice Department turning LAPD oversight over to a local federal judge. Soboroff came out swinging at last week’s debate of mayoral aspirants sponsored by the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. Gang violence, he began, was L.A.’s biggest problem, the city was spending too much time dwelling on the Rampart scandal, and he’d be damned if control of the LAPD should be handed over to some dufus on the bench. Since I was one of the pesky media panelists asking the questions that night, I queried the Big Sob on why he thought the LAPD would of its own accord implement the very reforms — tracking problem officers, improving psychological screening and subordinating itself to the control of local civilian authorities — which the department had been stonewalling for nearly a decade. By way of an answer, he equated the consent decree to the court-ordered school busing of the ’70s.

Shades of Sam Yorty! Soboroff, it’s now clear, intends to navigate through the crowded field of candidates in round one of the election by playing to, and stoking, the fears of middle- and upper-middle-class whites, even if it means he has to dredge up every trauma that Good White L.A. has worked years to forget. Sob’s message is straightforward: The liberals are out to dismantle the LAPD, run the city by judicial fiat, hand L.A. over to the gangbangers of Rampart and imperil the good burghers of Sherman Oaks — life, limb and SUV. If a backlash is smoldering anywhere in our fair city, Soboroff is determined to fan the flames.

That, at least, is the plan. But Soboroff — by trade, a very successful real estate wheeler-dealer — is also a hot-tempered political novice. And when he strayed off-message in last week’s debate, he squirted into uncharted and choppy seas. Asked by one audience member about the proposal to fork over city funds to the Democratic Convention — for the care and feeding, the questioner added, of the assembled fat cats — Soboroff, like all his fellow candidates, said that the idea appalled him. But perhaps because he has been under attack by Councilman Joel Wachs (his chief rival for Valley votes) for his campaign to wrest city funds to subsidize such certifiable billionaires as Phil Anschutz and Rupert Murdoch in the construction of the Staples Center, Sob also felt compelled to speak up for the embattled rich. “Remember,” he suddenly blurted out, “the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans employ 75 percent of Americans. Why insult them all the time?”

The crowd — conservative, but not crazy — sat in stunned silence. It may have been that Soboroff — himself among the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans — had taken it up to here, and was indulging a long-held fantasy: Threaten his critics, hell, the entire electorate, with the prospect of layoffs if they didn’t get off his case. Watch that 1 percent, baby: We’ll eat you alive.

Still, give the Big Sob his due. I doubt the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association has given much thought to the yawning gap between rich and poor in the new Los Angeles, until Steve Soboroff unexpectedly impressed upon his listeners just how massively powerful the rich really are.

—Harold Meyerson

Axl Lives!

Cat Club owner Slim Jim Phantom spent

Friday morning fielding reporters’ questions. “I had calls from MTV, Rolling Stone,” said the Hollywood club proprietor and former Stray Cat. The trigger for the media frenzy: the surprise appearance the night before of reclusive Guns N’ Roses legend Axl Rose.

Rose, who has barely been seen in public for the last six years, showed up unexpectedly with two gal pals and joined his former Guns N’ Roses bandmate, Gilby Clarke, at the mike singing the Rolling Stones classics “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers.” (Clarke is the lead guitarist and vocalist in Phantom’s band, the Starfuckers.) The once-skeletal Axl looked a bit hefty in a red football jersey and oversize jeans, but sounded as good as ever.

“I purposely didn’t shame him into coming up,” said Phantom, who plays drums. “I just let him have a good time. He came up completely on his own.”

The bitter falling-out of Guns N’ Roses is a matter of record. Could the joint appearance be the start of a reunion? “I don’t know; I can’t even get my own guys back together,” Phantom laughed. “But who knows? Fleetwood Mac got back together and they were all divorced.”

—Christine Pelisek

Gardena Grad Grinch

Grad Night at Disneyland is a rite of passage for thousands of L.A. students, but there were no Mouse Ears for kids at Gardena High School, who complained they were prematurely cut off from buying tickets to the crowning event of their senior year. “I was getting word there were petitions out there,” admitted principal Michael Perez, who nevertheless defended the school PTA’s decision to set an apparently arbitrary ticket-sales deadline a week and a half before the dance-and-rides extravaganza. Only 150 of the 425 seniors made it to the June 22 party, Perez estimated.

“Grad Night is a privilege, not a right, and there had been plenty of time for the students to get tickets,” Perez said. “They were complaining about the prom coming along at the same time as Grad Night, but they should have known these events were coming and budgeted accordingly.” Well, we think every senior who graduated from Gardena High is as much a champ as Shaquille O’Neal. But guess which one’s going to Disneyland?

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