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6 Cross-Training and Conditioning Myths for Dancers Debunked

Despite what you may think, when it comes to being a strong, healthy dancer, "all ballet, all the time" shouldn't be your motto. We spoke with Vanessa Muncrief, chief physical therapist for Ballet Austin, from Baylor Scott & White Institute of Rehabilitation, to dispel some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding cross-training and conditioning for dancers.


Myth: It's safest to stick only to ballet.

If you're afraid that training in other sports may increase injury risk, think again. Muncrief points out that dance is pretty much the only discipline that trains mostly within its sport. "Soccer players don't only do soccer," she says, "and football players train in a wide variety of activities." It's only in the last decade that the dance world has warmed up to the idea of cross-training. "It's quite helpful for decreasing injury," she says. While you don't need to run out and join a sports team, going for a bike ride or a swim, instead of squeezing in an extra ballet class, will help your body find better balance and recover from the demands of dance.

Young woman in green and blue running outside with headphones

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Myth: Class and rehearsal alone build up enough stamina for performance.

"Dance is a fairly anaerobic activity," says Muncrief, noting how class and rehearsal stop and start frequently. "You're working really hard, but you're not necessarily challenging your cardiovascular system." To build up stamina for lengthy performances, she recommends professionals do 20 to 30 minutes of cardio four times a week during the off-season. When your rehearsal schedule ramps up and you have less time and energy for rigorous workouts, find pockets of time to prioritize aerobic training in between rest and recovery. That might mean a taking brisk walk or using a recumbent bike if rehearsal lets out early.

And aerobic exercise isn't just about being able to make it through a performance without getting winded. Cardiovascular endurance is also important for reducing injury risk. Muncrief mentions that 80 to 90 percent of injuries occur when a dancer is fatigued. "We want to keep dancers out of that fatigued phase," she says.

Myth: Running is dangerous for ballet dancers.

If it's done the right way, it can be an excellent, safe stamina booster. Make sure you're running with parallel alignment in the hips, knees and ankles—instead of the external rotation you're used to in ballet. Though Muncrief says she wouldn't recommend running for dancers of all styles, it's different enough from ballet to bring balance to the body. If you do jog, go every other day, not daily.

Muncrief leans over a physical therapy table, writing into a binder.

Vanessa Muncrief

Jordan Moser, Courtesy Ballet Austin

Myth: Ballet dancers should always turn out.

In the quest to achieve near-180-degree turnout, you might think the more time you spend in external rotation, the better. Not so, says Muncrief. "It's actually really good to balance it out." Why? If you're using external rotation constantly, you're only bearing weight on one area of your ball-and-socket hip joints. This wear and tear puts you at risk for femoral acetabular impingement syndrome. "Save external rotation for ballet class, and everything else should be neutral," she says, including walking.

Myth: Weight lifting will make dancers too bulky.

Dancers often worry that strength training will cause them to bulk up or lose their balletic physique, but Muncrief encourages them to reframe this thinking. The goal of strength work is to be able to lift your own body up off the ground—or lift another dancer—as choreography requires. "We don't want you to go bench-press or do snatches," she says. Instead, focus on lifting two- to three-pound weights with high repetitions. "That's going to build your endurance and not necessarily give you bulky, heavy-duty muscles." She also recommends Pilates for sculpting a lean physique while building core strength.

Woman in a pink bathing suit swimming in a pool

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Myth: There is no such thing as too much stretching.

"That is absolutely wrong," says Muncrief, who warns that overstretching can lead to irreparable ligament damage, making your joints less stable. "Once a ligament is torn or overstretched, it doesn't necessarily rebound to where it was before, like a muscle." Hold a stretch for 30 seconds, four times, and then move on. And save any static stretching for once you're warm, such as after barre or once class is over.

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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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