Stay on your toes: be a sponsor and a mentor

Published 2:02 pm Sunday, September 6, 2015

Last week there was a network TV news profile of ballet dancer Misty Copeland that I found striking on several levels when I learned of her ascent within the artistic world.

For those of you not familiar, Copeland is a ballerina and in many ways an unlikely one. One of six kids, she had an itinerant childhood in California as her mother married and remarried four times. Dancing was her escape.

At 13, a teacher recommended she take ballet classes at the local Boys and Girls Club, and less than two years later she entered her first dance competition and won it. Overcoming the scars of her childhood, at age 18 she moved to New York City and joined the famed American Ballet Theatre.  Though struggles still persisted, Copeland persevered and received her greatest reward this past spring when, at the age of 32, she was promoted to principal dancer with the ABT, propelling her to heights once considered unthinkable.

As an accomplished ballet dancer, Copeland knows how to soar and spin.  Now inhaling some rarified artistic air, she is now the first African-American woman to receive the prestigious ballet company’s highest rank.  Now this ballet star is wowing us once again as the fall theatre season approaches.

Although ballerinas win cheers for their solo turns, Copeland is the first to say that she owes her rise to a strong network of supporters who helped her get beyond childhood homelessness and racist dance critics, crippling injuries and a career that sometimes eats its best artist alive, figuratively, because it demands so much from them. Copeland’s support network consisted of two categories: mentors and sponsors.

Although people often merge the two, there’s a crucial difference. Mentors are those people who take an interest in counseling you because they like you, or because you remind them of themselves. Mentors offer a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on and usually advice based on their own experience. A sponsor is also someone who takes an interest in you and your career but their prime role is to develop you as a leader. They believe in your potential and are willing to advocate for that next rung you want to climb on the success ladder. They try to introduce you to connections and encourage you to take risks in at strategic points in your career.

Copeland’s story has played out in the rare air of tutus and toe shoes, but the lessons about sponsorship are crucial for anyone, no matter their race or background, who wants to succeed in their chosen career.  Copeland has shown that they’re especially important for black women who aspire to leadership positions.

A good sponsor lends career traction by providing stretch assignments and advocacy to high potential talent. Sponsorship is particularly crucial in driving ambition and pushing engagement among people of color.

People in a position to sponsor others benefit by extending their support.  Building your protégés enhances your own strength, complements your skill sets, and along the way brings the realization of one’s own vision and legacy.  When you develop leaders you become more satisfied with your own career progress over those who haven’t built up that base of support.

All in all, a sponsorship relationship is key to advancement, no matter what industry you’re in, be it art, athletics, education, or economics. It’s always important to pay it forward.

Misty Copeland now mentors young dancers in Harlem with a comprehensive initiative to draw more diverse dancers beyond street moves and into elite ballet.

“I think it’s important for young dancers of color to have someone who looks like them as an example–someone they can touch,” Copeland said in a magazine interview. “I tell them to be true to themselves.”

And that’s a message any rising star can appreciate.

 Gene Motley is a Staff Writer with Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at or 252-332-7211.