Why Mentors Matter: Misty Copeland and Raven Wilkinson

Dannon Oikos | Misty Copeland Slide Hustle / Johan T. Anderson /Vimeo/ CC0

July 10, 2017

Misty Copeland is the first African-American female principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre and one of Time Magazine’s “most influential people in the world.” Accolades aside, she is one of the most talented dancers of contemporary times.

But in her humble ways, she is quick to tell anyone that she is not the first, nor the last, nor even the greatest. Misty Copeland recognizes that she would not be who she is today without the pioneering work, inspiration, and guidance of her mentor: Raven Wilkinson.  

In 1955 and at only 20 years old, Raven Wilkinson became the first Black woman to receive a contract to dance full-time with any major ballet company. Her first full-time professional run was with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of New York City, but she would later join the Dutch National Ballet and the New York City Opera.

Wilkinson would tour internationally through her role as a professional dancer. But, as part of companies with dancers of many different ethnicities and traversing across continents, she experienced a complex relationship with racism.

As “firsts,” it was an easy pairing and exchange of lessons learned between Misty Copeland and Raven Wilkinson. Both women accomplished laudable professional achievements at a young age, and made breakthrough accomplishments in a competitive industry that cast them as “others.”

For Copeland, it wasn’t until 2015 that the American Ballet Theater promoted her as the first African-American woman to the role of principal dancer. With Copeland’s “athletic” physique, Black skin, and delayed training (unlike most professional dancers, she didn’t start training until age 13), Copeland stood for everything a ballerina “shouldn’t” be.

Her conversations with Wilkinson helped steer her perspective away from the status quo and provided her with the motivation to succeed.

Wilkinson helped Copeland adapt to the predominantly-white dance world of the American Ballet Theater. She even visited Copeland after a major surgery impacted Copeland’s ability to perform. Copeland knew of Wilkinson while training as a dancer, and her accomplishments provided Copeland with the motivation to keep pressing on.

While we may only think of professional mentors in the business world, the older generations have a wealth of wisdom, guidance, and experience that can help us achieve both our personal and professional goals.

Copeland’s relationship with Wilkinson inspired her latest children’s book, Firebird, which inspires younger boys and girls to follow in her footsteps. With a closing note by Wilkinson herself, the story is bookended by Wilkinson’s support - much like she continues to support Misty Copeland today.  

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