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Here are 8 Ballet Books to Add to Your Stuck-at-Home Reading List

Updated March 18, 2020

With daily life as we know it on hold, you may not be able to get your ballet fix from hanging out in the studio or going to the theater. But these long days spent at home are just begging to be spent neck-deep in a pile of good books. Whether you're looking for inspiration for the upcoming season or trying to brush up on your dance history, you can never go wrong with an excellent book on ballet. We've gathered eight titles (all available at common booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble) guaranteed to give you a deeper understanding of the art form, or add to your stay-at-home reading list.


"Apollo's Angels" by Jennifer Homans

When it comes to exhaustive ballet records, few books cover the history of the art form quite as thoughtfully as Jennifer Homans' instant classic, Apollo's Angels. Spanning more than 400 years, a handful of continents and countless dancers and choreographers, Apollo's Angels clearly details ballet's past. Come for the history lesson, but stay for the anecdotes that make you feel like you were there. (Random House, 2010).

"Holding On to he Air" by Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley

Suzanne Farrell: the quintessential American ballerina who needs no introduction. We've all watched (and obsessed) over anything and everything Farrell-related, but for a glimpse into the mind behind the legend grab a copy of her 1990 memoir, Holding on to the Air. In it, Farrell chronicles her personal life, multi-decade dance career and icon status in a way that's equal parts inspirational and down-to-earth. (University Press of Florida, 1990.)

Small stack of books on a white table next to a white couch with yellow pillows on it.

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'Writing in the Dark, Dancing in the New Yorker" by Arlene Croce

When Arlene Croce joined The New Yorker as a dance critic in the early 1970s, the American dance boom was at its peak. On any given day she'd see the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov or Suzanne Farrell in works by George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille and Alvin Ailey. Writing in the Dark, Dancing in The New Yorker is a collection of Croce's most beloved essays, covering some of the most important moments in modern American ballet. (University Press of Florida, 2005.)

"Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes: Stories from a Silver Age" by Michael Meylac

Show us a dancer who wouldn't give up everything to travel back in time to join the Ballets Russes, and we'll show you a liar. Often cited as the most iconic ballet company of the 20th century, Sergei Diaghilev's touring Ballets Russes brought dance royalty (think Anna Pavlova and George Balanchine) and ballet as we know it to the West. Follow the company from 1909 to 1929 in Michael Meylac's expertly-researched account of the famed troupe. (Bloomsbury Press, 2017.)

Close up of a woman's hands holding an open book and a yellow mug.

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"Celestial Bodies" by Laura Jacobs

What's not to love about a book that describes an arabesque as a line that "carries us from ancient sands up into the stars" or 32 fouettés as "a whisk frothing up egg whites?" In this series of poetic essays, dance critic Laura Jacobs might not necessarily teach you anything you don't already know, but then again, that's not really the point. Instead, Celestial Bodies uses ballet basics as a launchpad to create writing as decorative and alluring as dance itself. (Basic Books, 2018.)

"Marius Petipa: The Emperor's Ballet Master" by Nadine Meisner

The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker... Marius Petipa, the name of the man behind these masterpieces, is practically synonymous with classical ballet. In the newly published Marius Petipa: The Emperor's Ballet Master, the first full-length Petipa biography in English, we're given a behind-the-scenes look into the life of one of the most important choreographers of all time. (Oxford University Press, 2019.)

"Winter Season" by Toni Bentley

With Toni Bentley's Winter Season, another former NYCB dancer chronicles her life and work under Balanchine. Taken from a journal kept by Bentley when she was 22 and facing a challenging winter season with the company, it becomes immediately clear that while Bentley loves her profession, she's acutely aware of the contradictions and roadblocks that arise in the ballet world. If you're craving a read that feels like chatting with a very honest friend, this one is for you. (University Press Florida, 1982.)

"Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today" by Simon Morrison

Powerful Tsars, a political revolution, Sergei Prokofiev, a $600+ million renovation and an acid attack—it's all part of The Bolshoi Theater's legacy. Historian Simon Morrison breaks down nearly 250 years of Moscow-based ballet in a way that's surprisingly easy-to-read, even if your grasp of Russian history is less than perfect. And if you're still on the fence, note that there's an entire chapter dedicated to Maya Plisetskaya that's worth the price of admission alone. (4th Estate, 2016.)

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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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