Remie Goins, a student at International City School of Ballet in Atlanta, performs at the YAGP finals. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP.

Competitions 101: What You Need to Know Before Signing Up For Your First Ballet Competition

You've watched First Position, the 2011 documentary about dancers at Youth America Grand Prix. You've studied videos of past ballet competition winners online. Now, you're interested in joining those elite ranks by entering a competition yourself. But what if your school doesn't have a program set up to guide you through the process? Pointe asked four experts to break down what ballet competition newbies need to know.

Pick the Right Event

Brady Farrar, age 12, is a student at Stars Dance Studio. Here he performs at the 2018 ADC IBC Grand Prix. Photo by SMaCK Arts, Courtesy ADC IBC.

Not all competitions are ideal for first-timers. What's right for you will depend on several factors, starting with your age and experience level. For instance, YAGP is open to pre- professional dancers ages 9 to 19, whereas the USA International Ballet Competition, held every four years in Jackson, Mississippi, welcomes competitors up to age 28—including seasoned pros. Before you sign up for an event, assess who else will be there. While you can certainly be challenged and inspired by watching older, more experienced dancers, competitions are also useful for seeing how you measure up against your peers.

Next, take a look at the performance requirements. "I would not advise those new to competing to do major events like USA IBC, the Moscow International Ballet Competition or the Varna International Ballet Competition, simply because of the number of variations required," says Edward Ellison, artistic director of Ellison Ballet in New York City. His students have secured top prizes at a variety of interna- tional competitions. "Six solos, or three pas de deux, could be more than a first-timer is ready to chew." An event that asks you to present one classical and one contemporary piece may feel more manageable.

In general, Ellison advises getting your feet wet at a local competition before traveling long distances. Perhaps the most accessible in that regard is YAGP, with regional semifinals across the U.S. and around the globe. Meanwhile, some events are held over a single weekend, while others, like the IBCs in Jackson and overseas, can last two weeks or longer. Testing your mettle at a shorter event first can prepare you for a more rigorous competition in the future.

Lastly, consider your goals. Do you have your sights set on earning a slot at a prestigious academy, an apprenticeship
or even a company contract? Selecting an event where you'll be seen and judged by the right people is a must. Account for all of the opportunities available to competitors, from stage time to master classes and auditions, as you make your decision.

Weigh the Costs

Master teacher Francesca Zumbo teaching class at the American Ballet Competition. Photo Courtesy ABC.

Competing can get pricey. Expect registration fees, broken down by how many categories (solo, pas de deux, ensemble) you plan to enter. You'll also need coaching, which happens outside of regular class time. "Some schools charge a flat competition fee for the number of weeks you'll be trained," says Mariaelena Ruiz, who directs Cary Ballet Conservatory's Professional Training Program in Cary, North Carolina. She has coached medalists at YAGP, Prix de Lausanne and others. "Other dancers hire a coach independently, often for an hourly rate." Either way, you could spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on private coaching. If your coach will attend the competition with you, you may also have to cover their travel expenses—on top of your own transportation and lodging. Need to perform a contemporary number? Unless you have a teacher who can create an original piece for you in-house, you'll have to hire a choreographer.

Then there are the costumes. "Quality classical tutus can range anywhere from $600 to $2,000," Ellison says. Ruiz notes that you can save money by renting a tutu, or by buying a plain base. "You can layer accessories and use it for different variations," she explains. And don't forget your contemporary costume, extra pointe shoes or slippers, and any conditioning and physi- cal therapy you'll need to keep yourself healthy. It adds up—but if cost is an issue, scholarship funds may be available, either through your school or through the event you're interested in attending. Be ready to do your research.

Prep Like a Pro

Ashley Baszto is now a dancer with Orlando Ballet. Photo by Michael Cairns, Courtesy Baszto.

In your coaching sessions, you're doing more than learning choreography and nitpicking technical details. "You have to work on musicality and artistry," says Orlando Ballet company member Ashley Baszto, who has competed at YAGP, USA IBC and Florida's American Dance Competition | International Ballet Competition. "You also have to understand and express the intention of your performance. All of that takes time."

The amount of advance preparation recommended varies from studio to studio. Ellison begins the coaching process several months before a competition. Ruiz starts working with her students in September for a February or March event; for young competitors, she might even introduce variation elements during the summer. "I don't want to put anyone onstage who isn't ready," Ruiz says. "Miracles come after work."

When you've got your eyes on the prize, it can be tempting to shift your focus entirely toward rehearsals. However, you never want to sacrifice your regular training. "The competition should be the result of everything the student knows, which is not only one variation," says Claudio Muñoz, a teacher at Houston Ballet Academy and a frequent coach who has also juried for competitions, including YAGP, ADC | IBC and Japan Grand Prix. "At Houston, we only begin work on the variation about a month before the event. We think of it like a performance—if you were preparing Sleeping Beauty, you wouldn't work on it for three years!" Of course, it can't hurt to slot in extra rehearsals if you're feeling anxious, but class always comes first.

Make the Most of It

International Ballet Academy student Parker Garrison takes a bow at the ADC IBC. Photo by SMaCK Arts, Courtesy ADC IBC.

When your time in the spotlight arrives, Ellison recommends treating it like any other performance. "Focus on what you're giving of yourself to the audience," he says. "Be generous, expressive and really live onstage. You're far more likely to dance well if you approach it that way."

Keep in mind that your few minutes onstage represent only a fraction of the competition experience. "Every moment you're there is an opportunity," Baszto says. Many events include auditions, master classes, networking forums and more.

And don't hesitate to introduce yourself to other dancers and their coaches, to master teachers and even to the jury, if appropriate. "You're going to meet so many people at a competition, and that in itself is wonderful," Muñoz says. "If you focus only on the stage, you're isolated. That's not productive."

Above all, remember that medals aren't everything. "Everyone wants to place first," Baszto says. "But even if you don't win, you've already improved so much from all of the work you've done. Appreciate your growth." Focus on the journey rather than the outcome, and you'll head home happy and fulfilled.

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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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