The Dance Teacher Awards Brought Us Together and Gave Us Hope

Who knew that a virtual awards ceremony could bring our community together in such a powerful way?

Last night, we celebrated the annual Dance Teacher Awards, held virtually for the first time. Though it was different from what we're used to, this new setting inspired us to get creative in celebrating our six extraordinary honorees. In fact, one of the most enlivening parts of the event was one that could only happen in a Zoom room: Watching as countless tributes, stories and congratulations poured in on the chat throughout the event. Seeing firsthand the impact our awardees have had on so many lives reminded us why we chose to honor them.

If you missed the Awards (or just want to relive them), you're in luck—they are now available to watch on-demand. We rounded up some of the highlights:

Deborah Damast inspired us to keep pushing forward.

A television screen depicting Deborah Damast accepting her award on Zoom. She gestures in excitement

As presenter and Dance Teacher senior editor Courtney Escoyne put it, the dance educators of tomorrow are indeed in good hands with Deborah Damast.

Damast, who directs the dance education master's degree program at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, gave us a sampling of the inspiration she doles out to her pedagogy students (and her young students—Damast still teaches creative movement, too) on the regular.

"Don't let the overwhelming nature of these times paralyze you into inaction," she told us. "Find the light, take on the challenge and steer your ship. We are dancers, flexible in mindset and strong in design. Bring your mentors and your ancestors with you for support. And be the history that you want your students to read about. Because history is made right now."

Bo and Stephanie Spassoff celebrated the beauty of our art form.

A screenshot of Bo and Stephanie Spassoff's acceptance speech, filmed in their home

It's one thing to know that The Rock School has a long list of distinguished alumni. It's another thing to hear those alums talk about their experience growing up in the school, and how its directors, Bo and Stephanie Spassoff, shaped their lives.

Several such artists joined us by video last night, including New York City Ballet's Taylor Stanley and Russell Janzen, Ballet West's Kaeli Ware, Boston Ballet's Derek Dunn and Charlotte Ballet's Sarah Lapointe. Many of them spoke about how the Spassoffs imbued in them a deep love for the art form.

"This is just the most beautiful art form and we've so enjoyed our whole marriage in it," said Stephanie. "You give and then you get in return, just incredible joy and satisfaction. And when you dance to give to audiences and to uplift them, there's nothing better than that."

Kim Black reminded us that everyone deserves the chance to dance.

A screenshot of Kim Black accepting her award with a class of students behind her

When Kim Black got married, she had 78 flower girls, all her students. So when it came time for another milestone—accepting her Dance Teacher Award—she wanted to once again have her students beside her.

Black accepted the award from her Burlington, North Carolina, studio, surrounded by her (socially distanced) students, many of whom adorably dressed up for the occasion.

Throughout Black's speech, she kept coming back to the word "chance," acknowledging the mentors who gave her chances to teach, and how she strives to create opportunities for others today. Everyone deserves to dance, regardless of their abilities, Black said. (Black walks this talk through her integrative dance program, A Time to Shine.) "Keep giving people chances," she urged us.

Patricia Dye showed us what community really looks like.

A screenshot of Patricia Dye, who is wearing a bright yellow dress, accepting her award from her home

Hearing Patricia Dye accept her award was like getting a lesson in dance history. That's because the beloved high school dance teacher and Teachers College, Columbia University doctoral student is constantly naming the ancestors, mentors and teachers who paved the way for her—from her early teachers in St. Croix to her upbringing in Brooklyn (where she still teaches today) to legends like Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham and Chuck Davis.

Dye has paved the way for countless students herself. The Latin origin of "educate," she told us, is "to lead out of." She said, "As a dance educator, I've been leading my students out of where they presently are to where they want to be."

With her typical humility, Dye emphasized that it's taken a village to get her to where she is. "I've learned that my community, my tree of life, is my anchor," she said. "I teach what I've learned and experienced. We teach our youth to document our stories for the yet-to-be-born."

MOVE|NYC| gave us hope for the future.

A still from A Prayer for Black Life. Kelsey Lewis wears all black and dances in the grass under a bridge

For the first time ever, all the proceeds from this year's Dance Teacher Awards went to an organization whose mission is close to our hearts: MOVE|NYC|.

MOVE|NYC| co-founders Nigel Campbell and Chanel DaSilva (you may remember them from our May/June cover!) joined us to talk about how they're working to create a more equitable and diverse dance field, and to foster tomorrow's dance leaders. Then came one of my favorite moments of the event: MOVE|NYC| student Kelsey Lewis performed a gorgeous and haunting solo (that she learned on a basketball court this summer!) entitled A Prayer for Black Life, choreographed by Campbell. It's clear that Lewis has a bright future ahead of her, and we're thrilled to be able to support her training with the Dance Teacher Scholarship funded by the proceeds from last night's event.

Dance Teacher celebrated one of our own.

A tv screen shows Karen Hildebrand smiling as she accepts her award

Karen Hildebrand, who passed the baton to me as Dance Teacher's editor in chief earlier this year, has been advocating tirelessly for dance education for the entirety of her 11-year tenure. So we decided to surprise her with her own well-deserved Dance Teacher Award. (Okay, we told her about it the week prior, but she was still pretty surprised.)

We brought together current and former Dance Teacher writers, editors, cover stars, advisory board members and more to tell Hildebrand about how she's impacted our lives, and to send her well wishes for her next chapter.

Wendy Whelan honored the many teachers who shaped her.

A blurry screenshot of Wendy Whelan smiling on the Zoom screen

Who would have guessed that during her training, Wendy Whelan felt like she was "dog paddling through her ballet classes, trying to catch up"?

Accepting her Dance Teacher Award of Distinction, the former New York City Ballet principal and current associate artistic director told us about how at age 9, when she decided to get serious about ballet, she suddenly found herself "guessing her way through class, never knowing which body part to pull up or in, wondering what exactly the difference between the two was." Once, she said, a teacher even asked a more advanced student to take her to the side and show her what a pas de bourée was. "I had no idea," she said.

Whelan was not deterred. "I became a very good follower back then, and frustration became second nature to me," she said. "But that's often what happens. You get hooked on the process and the puzzles and the growth, and you never want to stop learning. And you never want to lose that feeling of eternally being in bloom. Either that, or you decide a career in ballet is maybe not for you." I think I speak for the entire dance community when I say: Thank goodness the latter was not the case with Whelan.

She then spoke about the many teachers who influenced her over the years, and whose lessons she now draws on as a teacher herself. Though they varied dramatically in approach—sometimes even with contradictory methods, she said—"between them all existed a meeting point of truth, and a deep understanding of integrity and excellence."

Whelan continued to call upon the wisdom of her teachers in her mini-class and Q&A, where she told us about the images she loves to use in class, the technique tricks she's learned throughout her career and how her new gardening hobby has inspired her teaching.

We're already looking for nominations for next year. 

Believe it or not, nominations for the 2021 Dance Teacher Awards are already open! We're excited to hear about the extraordinary educators who you'd like to see receive an award next year.

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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."

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