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Tips for Developing a Growth Mindset, and Why It Can Help You Become a Happier Dancer

"I was told when I was a young teenager that I had the worst pirouette my teacher had ever seen," remembers New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette. The statement was made lightheartedly, and Lovette laughed at the time. "The whole class laughed, and I knew it was a bad pirouette," she says, "but it still hurt." These moments can quickly consume a dancer's inner monologue, and Lovette could have concluded that she just isn't a good turner, but she didn't. Instead she told herself, "It may be the worst pirouette that my teacher has ever seen, but it is my pirouette and I am working on it. It will get better."

Ballet dancers tend to see things in black and white. "I am good at jumping and bad at adagio," for instance, or "I will be successful when I get accepted by x, y or z program or company." This kind of rigid thinking is what mental health professionals often call a "fixed" mindset, and it could be hurting your development as a dancer and a person, as well as your mental well-being.

The good news is that a "growth" mindset—belief that your abilities will improve with time and effort—is a skill you can develop. By looking for opportunities for growth, rather than defining things as permanently good or bad, you will likely dance better and be happier doing it.

Wearing a blue leotard, tights, pointe shoes and floppy hat, Lauren Lovette does an arabesque on her right leg and holds onto a grand piano with her right hand and a blue folding chair with her left.

Lauren Lovette in Jerome Robbins' The Concert

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

What Is a Growth Mindset?

The concept of a "growth" versus a "fixed" mindset was popularized by the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University. According to Sara Hickmann, a clinical and performance psychologist who presented at the U.S. Prix de Ballet earlier this year, a growth mindset believes that success and improvement come from persistence and effort, while a fixed mindset is focused on the outcome or the reward. "When you can adopt a growth mindset, your ability to be resilient and successful over time is much greater," she says.

UK-based psychotherapist and former ballet dancer Terry Hyde notes that a fixed mindset is unconscious, and has a lot to do with what we learn as small children (for example, that we are good at ballet and bad at math). "Having a fixed mindset means creating anxiety when things don't go right," says Hyde. For example, a dancer with this mode of thinking may be completely derailed by an audition rejection and spiral into feelings that they are a terrible dancer. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset will reflect on what they learned or gained from the audition process, even if they aren't accepted.

Focus on Attitude and Effort

When Hyde does workshops and therapy sessions with pre-profession-al and professional dancers, he uses the acronym "FEAR" (false evidence appearing real) to give them perspective on the anxiety a fixed mindset creates. When a rehearsal director snaps at you, it is unlikely that they "hate" you, and more likely that they are having a bad day and misdirecting it. Likewise, the subjective opinion of a director at an audition does not qualify you as a "bad" dancer if you are not selected.

To foster a growth mindset, says Hickmann, focus on two things you can control: effort and attitude. "We can increase our effort and change our attitude, and even if the outcome isn't what we want, dancers are going to feel a deeper sense of meaning to what they are doing, and be more optimistic about what they are doing in general."

One of the most effective ways we can adjust our attitude is by practicing positive self-talk (see the graphic above for some examples). When confronted with setbacks, speak to yourself the way you would to a dear friend—you wouldn't tell her that she's a bad dancer because she didn't get cast, right? At its core, a growth mindset is dedicated to your belief in yourself and what you are capable of.

Lauren Lovette, wearing a white T-shirt, gray plaid pants and ballet slippers, does a pass\u00e9 with her right leg and bends sideways to the right. She lifts her right arm up and grabs her right elbow with her left hand, framing her head with her arms.

Lovette rehearsing her ballet The Shaded Line with members of NYCB.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Do Something New That Scares You

In 2008, while still a student at the School of American Ballet, Lovette signed herself up for a choreographic workshop for one reason: It scared her. "I was so afraid to put my name down because I didn't know if I would be able to put anything out there," she remembers. "That helped me discover something that I really love to do. But I didn't know that I loved it. I didn't have a vision of being a choreographer." Lovette has since choreographed three works for the NYCB repertoire.

Hickmann says that Lovette's leap of faith is exactly the kind of thing dancers should do to foster a growth mindset. "It shows that you are open to ways in which you are going to have to lean into fear, or incompetence, or frustration in learning something new," she says. Your goal should not be to strike gold on a new skill like Lovette did with choreography (she has also tried bread baking, drawing and, during the pandemic, remodeling a house), but to keep learning. "Expose yourself to other activities where you don't have those same expectations as in ballet," says Hickmann. "Often that mindset, the need to win, will travel with you," she adds. It takes practice to do something you are not prolific at and enjoy the learning process.

When Lovette speaks about her attitude, common themes emerge: growth, learning and gratitude. "I've held my career with a very open hand because you have to. It is not something that is ever sure," she says. But Lovette has come to this mindset through hard work, as a lover of therapy and self-help books. "It is always about doing the best that I can in the phase that I am in. And as long as I am learning and growing, it is worth it."

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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