Boston Ballet's Daniel Randall Durrett. Photo by Rene Micheo, Courtesy Dance Jox

Can We Get Rid of the Awkwardness Surrounding Dance Belts?

When I was 13, I was in a class with boys who were a few years older than me at the School of American Ballet. One day before class, I gave a little sass to a 16-year-old classmate who was swinging his leg as his warm up, showing off his flexibility.

"Kick that leg," I say.

"Wear those briefs," he replies.

My face went beet-red. Was I supposed to be wearing a dance belt? I was sure I was too young, but I asked a friend of mine just in case. He told me, gracefully, that yes, I needed one and that it was a topic of some discussion among my older peers.

Even though I had been at SAB for three years, when to wear a dance belt had never been discussed.


It's hard enough to deal with the teasing and social discomfort of being a male dancer in your early teens, and talking about a dance belt with someone, let alone wearing one, was something I was happy to put off.

But, after that fateful pre-class warm up, I got myself a dance belt. However, the awkwardness didn't end there. I first wore a style that was comfortable, but too loose, then one that was too tight. I learned that the hard way when a colleague whispered to me during a run-through, "one ball is out."

In my nine years of training and six years in ballet companies, no one ever talked about how to find the right fit or style for my body.

It seemed the topic was too awkward for anyone to talk about back then. So, how are things now?

At SAB, the situation seems to be the same. Amy Bordy, director of public relations at the school, says via email that, "There continues to be no formal or official advice given to students about dance belts."

But the tides of awkwardness for young male dancers are starting to turn.

Kiyon Ross, who graduated from SAB a couple years before I did, went on to have a career at Pacific Northwest Ballet and is now on the faculty there. He says that he talks to his 11-year-old boys about dance belts.

"I bring one in and explain what it is. Some have never seen one before," Ross says. "It takes the weirdness and mystery out of it."

He recommends brands and sizes to them and offers feedback.

"If I see in class it's not right, it's not fitting, I tell them," he says.

PNB's Kiyon Ross teaching DanceChance boys' class

Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

Ross says that when he was in his early teens in Baltimore, no one spoke with him about dance belts. He describes going to a local dance shop where a woman handed him all the different sizes and styles she had and he tried them all over his underwear.

"I just remember she kept giving me all these sizes that were bigger and bigger," he says with a laugh-cringe. "They clearly were not going to fit."

Beyond getting the right fit and preferred style, a male dancer needs to know how to organize their anatomy in the dance belt.

"We talk about how the private parts fit in. I tell them that it's not like underwear," Ross says. "You have to fix it so it goes in the upward direction."

Tom Kilps, a former dancer with Texas Ballet Theater and founder of the dance belt line Dance Jox is even more direct than Ross. His website has an instructional page that reads:

"As you reach into the pouch, pull everything upwards and make sure the testicles are at the front with everything else pointing upwards. Your penis is supposed to end up facing towards 12 o'clock."

I didn't figure this out until I was 16, when I heard a dancer make fun of another boy who was doing this wrong. Perhaps it was passive-aggressively meant for me.

Kilps says he founded Dance Jox because he was unhappy with the options he had when he was dancing. He's been refining the product for five years, adding features such as quick-dry material, four-way stretch in the thong and a seam down the middle of the front pouch to match the seam in most tights.

He also says his product makes male dancers feel less "on display," and is a better option than wearing two dance belts in an effort to be modest, which is not uncommon.

"I've heard directors comment on some dancers that their 'bump' is distracting," Kilps says. "You want to see the dancer, not their junk."

Dance Jox dance belts come in a wide variety of sizes, from small to 2XL to help dancers of all body types feel comfortable. He also sells them in a darker flesh tone for dancers of color.

Ross, who is black, says that when he was performing with PNB, the costume shop would have to dye his dance belts for ballets with light colored tights or with no shirt where the waistband might show.

"Just like pointe shoes, it's important to have color options," Ross says. "Not everyone will have access to a custom shop to dye to the right color."

Texas Ballet Theatre principal Carl Coomer in Dance Jox

Andy Keye, Courtesy Dance Jox

Kilps also had a less-than-ideal experience as 14-year-old buying his first dance belt. Like Ross, he went to his local dance shop in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, that was "pink everywhere." He didn't even know what a dance belt was when a woman at the store handed him one.

"It was awkward," he says. "I was like, I don't want to wear this thong."

Kilps tries to help younger dancers with their first dance belt purchase, and that often means talking about dance belts with the mom.

Nicola Hudson's son Rhys first took ballet class in his boxer shorts, but he when he was about 12, the school told her she needed to buy him a dance belt.

"I didn't really know much about what to get him and I didn't find too much information online," Hudson says. "I just bought one with good reviews."

She says that buying from a typical dance store wasn't ideal because they just, "read the product label and can't tell you much more." She says finding Kilps was useful because she could talk to someone who knew the experience of wearing a dance belt.

Getting comfortable wearing tights and having your anatomy on display can be challenging for a young male dancer, who is probably already facing at least some bullying for studying dance. This makes it even more important for a young male dancers to have guidance and minimize the awkwardness around dance belts.

"For teachers who do have boys, it's important not to shy away from the topic," Ross advises. "It's part of our culture as male dancers, it needs to be normalized."

While dance belts can only be so comfortable, they are a fact of life if you want to pursue a career in dance—at least for awhile.

Asked if he still wears dance belts these days as a teacher, Ross laughs.

"I don't wear them anymore," he says. "I'm done with that."

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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.

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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."

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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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