Dancers On Assignment: Cross Training

Karate

When most people think of martial arts, they might assume it would be the last thing a ballet dancer would want to pursue. I, however, see little difference between martial arts and performing arts. The intense physical training, knowledge of anatomy, dietary awareness and risk of injury are all characteristics of both disciplines. It is easy to see how karate complements ballet physically. Basic karate exercises focus on many muscles that are underused in ballet class. I have also found that learning and understanding the principles of fighting can benefit ballet.

Of the countless styles of Japanese martial arts, I am a student of Seito Goju-ryu Karate-do. The dojo (training hall) where I take lessons is the Ten Ken Kan dojo in South Philadelphia. There is a list of kumite (fighting) principles on the wall. I recently sat down with my teacher, Shihan Khalid Newton, and discussed these principles with him to gain a better understanding of how karate helps me in ballet. 

We started with principles that are clearly related to those in dance. Kokyo (breath control) is something some of my dance teachers have touched on. Shihan says, “Breathing… is crucial to give [us] bursts of dynamic movement.” With proper breath control, lifting and jumping become almost effortless.

Metske (eye control) is a “relaxed and controlled gaze without blinking.” When working on kata (forms), it’s easy to see how this type of focus helps with spotting. Widening your focus by utilizing peripheral vision is essential whether you are in a line in the corps or trying to use the entire stage.

“Mai (distancing) is tied to timing.” In fighting, there should “never [be] a clash, because you meld with your opponent’s movement,” Shihan says. Besides its use in partnering, this principle is also helpful to master for dancing with groups of people.

Tai sabaki (body shifting) helps to control your center. Muchimi (contact) is the ability to “stick to and adhere to your opponent through your supple movements.” The indescribable performance quality certain dancers seem to possess innately is the application of kiai (spirit). Isshin (total commitment) needs little explanation. 

A less direct translation is needed for kozushi (off balancing). “[Throwing] your opponent off balance allows you to create a weakness to capitalize on,” Shihan says. Learning this allows you to better maintain your own balance.

On the other hand, there are even things we work on in ballet class that have hidden benefits for karate. The proper etiquette of finishing each combination fully is almost exactly how Shihan describes zashin (continuous mind). His definition is “bringing each movement to its fullest state, to its fruition.”

The kumite principle I have pondered most, however, is jin (benevolence). In developing jin, “you exude a positive energy to the point of influencing [your opponent’s] energy so that they lose the intent to attack you or do you harm,” Shihan says. All art has a transformative capacity both for the artist and the audience.

Even in studying the fighting arts, we can find new ways to enhance our performance quality and refine it. 

 

Resistance Training
Resistance training can help balance leg and upper-body strength.

In class, I find myself paying most of my attention to my legs and feet, but recently I’ve put some thought into strengthening my upper body. It’s a given that upper-body strength is especially important for men, but women can also benefit from strengthening this area for partnering, as well as for dancing contemporary work.

Jan Griscom, a personal trainer at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center in New York City who holds a BS in Kinesiology , helped me with upper-body exercises that would be especially beneficial for ballet dancers. She suggested a technique called resistance training to strengthen and balance the muscular system.

“You can work a specific muscle and develop it to balance out the body of the dancer,” Griscom says. For instance, strengthening the rotator cuff (the four muscles that work together to allow the free range of movement of the upper arm and shoulder) will help stabilize the shoulder joint, which is important to counterbalance the extreme ranges of motion in ballet. Exercises 1 and 2 (below) will help strengthen that muscle group.

Often, because ballet dancers tend to have weak upper back muscles and tight pecs, protracted shoulder blades (shoulder blades that stick out) are a common trait. Exercise 3 works the scapular retraction muscles to return the blades to a neutral position.

For all of these execises, Griscom recommends beginning with a single light resistance tube, such as SPRI Exertube with very light resistance. As you get stronger and need more resistance, she suggests combining two very light resistance tubes—as opposed to moving up to a stronger tube—to facilitate more movement during the exercise. And instead of doing a set number of repetitions for each exercise, she recommends continuing until you “feel the burn,” stopping, resting and then trying to do one or two more. A light Theraband can also be used in place of the tube.

Resistance Exercises

Exercise 1: External Rotation
Target: Rotator cuff
Stand, shoulders down and open, with a neutral spine. Feet, hip-distance apart with toes pointing out slightly. Wrap one end of a light resistance tube around each hand two to three times, palms facing up. Bring arms to your sides, locking your elbows into your waist and raisung your lower arms to a 90-degree angle. Keep upper arm still, and pull lower arms apart maintaining the 90-degree angle. Hold. Slowly return to starting position and repeat.

Exercise 2: Internal Rotation
Target: Rotator cuff
Wrap tubing around barre or other stable object, at about waist height. Stand sideways with left hip closest to the barre, and take both handles in left hand. Left arm assumes same position as in external rotation, right arm by side. Keep upper arm still, and pull lower arm into your body. Hold. Slowly return to starting position and repeat. Repeat on right side.

Exercise 3: Rowing
Target: Rear deltoid, mid and lower trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, obliques
For this exercise the resistance must come from above. Close the tubing into a door using a door hanger, included with some brands of tubing, or loop around a secure object. (Or tie a knot in a Theraband and close in a door.) Sit in a chair facing the tubing. Take handles with right hand, rotate to the left at the waist and lean slightly forward. Extend your arm up at a 45-degree angle from your shoulder. Initiating from shoulder blade, pull shoulder and elbow back along this angle as you begin to rotate to center and straighten up. When the hand reaches shoulder level, continue rotating to the right. Reverse this motion to return to starting position. Repeat. Also do left side. A more advanced variation can be done standing in a lunge or on one leg.

 

Gyrotonic
Created by a former dancer, gyrotonic lengthens and strengthens the body.

Developed in the ‘80s by former Rumanian State Opera principal dancer Juliu Horvath, Gyrotonic is often summed up, in simplest terms, as “yoga with resistance.” The exercises are built on a foundation of circular rather than linear movements that help to achieve greater flexibility and strength and require the use of a sophisticated piece of equipment called the Gyrotonic Expansion System. A set of rotating discs, weights and pulleys create resistance and allow for a wide range of stretching. The equipment and a well- trained instructor are essential to a proper gyrotonic workout. Depending on where you live, these components can be hard to find and private sessions run anywhere from $40 to $70 per hour, which are the only real drawbacks.

For me, Gyrotonic Houston in Houston, TX, is ideal.  It is owned by certified gyrotonic instructor Amy Ell, who is also a dancer and choreographer. Her gyrotonic sessions not only focus on strengthening the abdominals, but also include work to strengthen the lower back.

On the Expansion System, my movements are always initiated by using the entire core of the body, and proper alignment is stressed every step of the way. Ell constantly reminds me to lengthen my spine through my neck while keeping my shoulders down and my shoulder blades engaged.

Controlled breathing is also important. Ell suggests using a “hee” noise when exhaling, rather than just blowing the air out. This prevents the stomach muscles from pushing out as they would naturally and helps them to remain contracted.

The gyrotonic workout progresses in steps so that you warm up the body in a logical order. You begin sitting straddled on a bench facing two rotating discs with handles. Your feet are on the floor in front of you, legs parallel, toes lifted.  Placing your palms on the handles, you are led through a series of very
specific exercises.  

Using the body’s core, the arms and legs coordinate with the circular motion of the discs. For every contraction there is a release. Stretching is an integral part of the process. As the session progresses, the Expansion System’s weights and pulleys come into play. Depending on the exercise, your hands or feet are attached to the pulleys by a set of straps and the weights are adjusted for each person’s individual capabilities.

I’ve found that a complete gyrotonic session is satisfying for the whole body: Turn in and turnout muscles are worked equally. The back muscles receive the same amount of attention as the abs. Your feet are also worked continuously, moving from full flex through to full point, concentrating on doing so without “sickling.” And the stretching exercises take you safely to your absolute maximum so that you strengthen and lengthen your muscles.

At session’s end, you can feel the extra space in your spine and the extra length in your extremities. You stand a bit taller and walk away ready to dance.

By Philip Colucci, Karen Ellis-Wentz and Tyann Clement
Philip Colucci dances with Pennsylvania Ballet.

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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.

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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.

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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