Harper Watters with Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy HB.

The Choice That Changed Everything: 4 Pros Share the Best Training Decision They Made

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Pointe.

Deciding to pursue a career in dance is huge. But even with your eyes firmly on your goal, figuring out the best track to get you there can be confusing and stressful. What school to go to, which teacher to follow, and when or whether to leave home are questions all ambitious dancers face, and there's no right answer for everyone. Behind every successful dancer lies a path riddled with difficult decisions and moments of doubt. Often, coming to a fork in the road means making a realistic assessment of what your needs truly are. These three dancers faced tough choices at crucial moments in their training years, but pushed outside their comfort zones and took risks that ultimately paid off.


Sara Mearns, Principal, New York City Ballet

Mearns in Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht Ballet. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

When I was 12, Ann Brodie, my ballet teacher in Columbia, South Carolina, passed away. I'd studied with her since I was 3, so that was really rough. I was left with nothing. But before she passed, Miss Brodie had told my mom, "Sara has to go to New York. She has to go to the School of American Ballet."

My mom was always trying to find the best school for me, the right teacher. After Miss Brodie's studio closed, she drove me one and a half hours to Charlotte, North Carolina, every day to study under Patricia McBride. At the time, I didn't know who she was, but my mom did. I didn't realize how important that training was, but now I see it was essential to my understanding of Balanchine technique. It was exactly the preparation I needed to go to SAB and then join New York City Ballet.

We had to stop going to Charlotte after about eight months, and again I had nowhere to go. So I gave myself class every day in our basement, just trying to stay strong. I was 13 and had no idea what I was doing. Then I spent a year at the Governor's School for the Arts, which was a great transition, although it wasn't Balanchine technique.

I think it's really important for a student's training to be a family effort—parents have to do their research. My mom was sort of the puppet master behind everything. She knew that I needed to be at SAB full-time, so I'd been going to their summer courses. But they hadn't yet asked me to stay year-round.

After my fourth summer at SAB, I put myself on the line—I asked them if I could stay. It was the pivotal moment of my whole life, because if they hadn't said yes, I would have stopped dancing. There was nowhere I could further my pre-professional training at home.

Even though I really didn't have the "perfect" story, there's nothing I would have done differently. There were definitely some rough moments, but you have to go through tough times. It's never going to be easy.

Harper Watters, Corps de Ballet, Houston Ballet

A summer program helped Watters shift his focus from modern to ballet. Photo by Jordan Matter, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Growing up at a local competition studio in New Hampshire, I didn't have a ballet focus. But when I saw YouTube videos of Carlos Acosta and Angel Corella I thought, "I want to do that!" and enrolled at the nearby Walnut Hill School for the Arts. There I was placed in the lowest ballet level, but the highest in modern. It was a rude awakening, and I took that as a sign to shift my goal to being a modern dancer.

But my teacher wanted me to focus on classical, too, and sent me to The Washington Ballet and Houston Ballet summer programs. It was a turning point. I've never shied away from being inspired by other people instead of intimidated by them—doing so helps me improve myself. I'll never forget the first day at HB's intensive: I was at barre with two Houston Ballet II dancers, and their technique was incredible! It really opened my eyes to how much catching up I still had to do—it was a new starting point. But I pushed myself and saw my footwork and lines improve, and I realized that if I put my mind to it, a career in classical ballet was possible.

At the end of the summer, I was offered a contract with HBII. It was a difficult moment for my family, because it meant not returning home to Walnut Hill for my senior year of high school. My mom is a college professor and I'd been planning college visits already. But you have to go where you feel supported and spoken to. It was high-risk, but the most important decision of my career. When I competed at the Prix de Lausanne two years later, I saw that Houston had given me the foundation I needed to succeed. I just needed to trust my technique, my teachers' coaching, and conquer any sense of doubt.

Sarah Tyron, Corps de Ballet, Colorado Ballet

Tryon, here in La Sylphide, traded a big school for a smaller program. Photo by David Andrews, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

I started training at Canada's National Ballet School when I was 12. But I also wanted to see everything in the ballet world and then make a calculated decision when I was looking for a job. NBS has summer exchange programs with schools around the world, so I went to Ecole Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower in France, and then to Pacific Northwest Ballet School to learn Balanchine technique (NBS is more Vaganova and Cecchetti). I also went to Zurich's Tanz Akademie to improve my contemporary and improvisation skills because I wanted to be more well-rounded.

But after graduating from NBS, I felt like I still needed to gain strength and get a sense for how to be a professional dancer. I'd been in big ballet schools up until then and wanted private training, so I auditioned for the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program. It was completely eye-opening: Mr. Ellison focuses in on how to approach every single step in ballet, which was exactly what I needed. I wanted to know everything I was doing wrong, because I knew once I got into a company I wouldn't get as many personal corrections. There were only seven girls in the advanced class, and we had three-hour technique classes every day, plus pointe, pas de deux and rehearsals. After his program, I got a corps contract with Sarasota Ballet.

Mr. Ellison was the teacher I'd always wanted but could never find. It was absolutely a turning point for me.

Amy Watson, Principal, Royal Danish Ballet

Watson in La Sylphide. Photo by Costin Radu, Courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.

Amy Watson's training was literally all over the map. From RAD to Cecchetti to Balanchine, her path eventually led to the Royal Danish Ballet, where she's now a principal. An "unusual" journey, she says, but one that ultimately defined her as a dancer.

As a child, Watson spent two years at the Royal Academy of Dance in England. When her family relocated to Virginia, pure chance led her to Lisa Avery, a Cecchetti teacher who became her mentor from the age of 11. Together they mapped out a practical plan to reach her dreams. "I told Lisa I wanted to be in New York City Ballet," says Watson. "She explained about Balanchine style and physique, the competition I'd face. She was a realist."

Watson faced reality head-on when an acceptance to the School of American Ballet's summer program led to an invitation to stay year-round. "It was a harsh awakening. Deep down, I realized I wasn't necessarily born to do Balanchine, but I wanted it so badly that I just focused on it 100 percent. I don't have a naturally gifted Balanchine body, so I thought if I did make it into the company, I'd be a wild card."

With this in mind, Watson soaked up all she could from Russian and Cuban guest teachers at SAB. But when she was introduced to Bournonville technique, something clicked. "RDB's director, Nikolaj Hübbe, staged a piece for SAB's Workshop, and I could feel it was more natural and agreeable to my physicality than Balanchine." She shifted focus, and when the company held its first-ever U.S. auditions that year, Watson landed a corps contract.

Staying open-minded instead of locking into one style proved key to Watson's success. "For me, it wasn't about one school or another. It was about taking from every instructor the best they had to offer and not shutting myself off from anything. I definitely wouldn't be as versatile or healthy in my technique without knowledge from all those different teachers."

Latest Posts


Vadim Shultz, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet

Catching Up With Maria Khoreva: The Rising Mariinsky Star on Her TV Competition Win and New Book

The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed down the Mariinsky Ballet's Maria Khoreva. Although Russia's Mariinsky Theater was closed in 2020 from March until August, the 20-year-old first soloist used the time in quarantine to her advantage. She wrote a newly published book titled Teach Me Ballet, and won Best Female Dancer on Russia's hit TV show "Grand Ballet," a competition which brings young ballet dancers from all parts of the country to the national spotlight. (This season, filmed over the summer, was broadcast on Russia's arts channel from November 4 to December 19. All seven episodes are now available on YouTube.)

Pointe spoke with Khoreva to find out more about her experience on the show, her fitness regime during quarantine and her new book.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Karolina Kuras, Courtesy ROH

The Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi Shares Her Go-to Self-Care Ritual and Her Favorite Recipe

Royal Ballet principal Yasmine Naghdi had been gearing up to star as the Sugarplum Fairy in a December livestream performance of The Nutcracker when London went back into heavy COVID-19 restrictions. The performance was canceled, but Naghdi has been taking this current setback, and the challenges the pandemic has brought over the last 10 months, in stride. In addition to keeping up with her training, she's been taking Italian lessons virtually and preparing elaborate meals with her boyfriend ("We're both real foodies," she says). Last fall, Naghdi, who has always loved cooking, travel, design and self-care, decided to share her offstage passions with fans on her new Instagram page, @lifestyle_by_yas.

Naghdi recently talked with us about staying flexible to the UK's lockdown changes and her post-performance wellness routine, plus offered a recipe for her favorite pasta dish.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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."

Editors' Picks