Dancing In A New Body

I felt complete horror as I watched my performance on the tape: Like a poorly articulated marionette, my body flopped around the stage, all elbows, bent knees and sickled feet. It was our spring performance at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, and since entering the preprofessional program just 10 months earlier, I’d gained three inches to reach a gangly 5’9”. And despite my best intentions, the movements I thought I was performing were nothing like the images captured on that video.

Many young dancers deal with growth spurts—often during the pivotal years of their preprofessional training. They can leave you feeling like you’re dancing in someone else’s body, unable to control your own limbs. While this can be frustrating, it’s not the end of your technique: There are ways to deal and even improve during a growth spurt.   

What’s Happening?
 “The biggest thing going on is that the bones are growing faster than the muscles, so your muscles get tight,” says Nadia Sefcovic, DPT, who treats many young dancers at New York City’s Westside Dance Physical Therapy.

The things most noticeably affected are coordination and proprioception, or sense of body position (you know, when you feel like that arabesque is behind you until you look in the mirror to find yourself in the “dog-over-a-hydrant” position?). “During this period the neural system has a difficult time adapting to changes in muscle spindles and joint receptors, due to the new length and tension in the muscles, ligaments and tendons,” says Sefcovic. “Turns and petit allégro are often most difficult.”
How to Deal
The key to surviving a growth spurt is all in your alignment. Instead of beating yourself up because you can’t get that third pirouette, focus on the basics. “Correct placement is the most critical element at this time,” says Janet Popeleski, principal of the student division at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. “This is when students either develop strong technique or start cheating, which can later lead to injuries.”

Sefcovic recommends focusing on keeping your lumbo-pelvic area aligned and finding your balance. She has dancers practice quick tendus and dégagés while keeping the pelvis still, and balance in different positions with the eyes open, then closed. Eliminating your visual field will give you a sense of how your balance might be off. She also recommends working on core strength to improve alignment and find stability.

Be Kind to Yourself
“It’s important to listen to your body—you are at a greater risk for a muscle strain or tear,” says Sefcovic. “Keep stretching and massaging tight muscles.” 

Don’t allow frustration to overpower you. As a lanky 14-year-old, I was constantly reduced to tears, feeling like I was standing still while my peers flew past me. Popeleski, who helped motivate me through this trying period, encourages her students to look at the big picture. “If they have a good work ethic they will come around,” she says. “This period is temporary.”

While I can’t erase my awkward rendition of Balanchine’s choreography at PBTS, I did have more articulate performances in my future. I keep that VHS tape because it represents a time in my training when I managed to keep pushing on until I found my way to the other side.  


Exercises To Do During a Growth Spurt For pelvic alignment and control of hip external rotation:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and your abdominals contracted. Allow your right thigh to slowly fall towards the floor, making sure to keep your pelvis straight—don’t let it tip—and flat against the ground. Alternate legs, and repeat for two to three minutes.


  • Stand in parallel demi-plié with your feet aligned beneath your hips. Slowly rotate your pelvis and torso towards the left while keeping your right leg stationary, knee aligned over the second toe. Hold this for 10 seconds, then slowly return to the beginning position. Repeat this in the other direction and continue alternating to the right and left, 10 times each.

For coordination:

  • Lie on your back with your legs resting against the wall at a 90-degree angle. Bend your knees, sliding your feet down the wall. Make sure to maintain the alignment of your second toe, knee and hip in a straight line. Isolate your toes, flex them and release;then isolate your ankles, flex them and release while continuing to maintain your alignment. After repeating several times, straighten your legs and point your feet without sickling or winging.  —Nadia Sefcovic



The Top Five Foods for Growing Dancers

“You need to make sure you are getting lots of calcium to promote bone growth and
development,” says Sefcovic. “Leafy greens like spinach are a great source of calcium. It’s not just in dairy products.”

Peanut Butter
Girls tend to gain weight before they start growing. “This doesn’t mean you’re getting fat,” says Peggy Otto Swistak, nutritionist for Pacific Northwest Ballet School. “The body is building up energy to get taller.” If you’re looking to keep your weight in check, Swistak recommends keeping some “healthy fat,” like peanut butter, in your diet to help your body absorb vitamins and lubricate your joints. Healthy fats also help your body produce testosterone, which triggers muscle growth.

“The flesh of fish and fish liver oils are good sources of vitamin D and proteins,” says Sefcovic. Vitamin D is needed for the absorption of calcium. Nerves, tissues and bones are all made of proteins, so they are necessary for growth and repair.

Lima Beans
Another great source of protein is lima beans. They also provide fiber, which is important for the digestion process and will help keep your weight in check by making you feel fuller. “Legumes, such as cooked split peas, lentils or black beans, are also good sources of fiber and proteins,” says Sefcovic.

Your body is under a lot of stress during a growth spurt. You need vitamin C to combat those stressors and stay healthy. Oranges are a great source, but any citrus fruit will do.



Stay Strong--Even When You Are Broken

Getting your body back into ballet shape after an injury is hard enough, but if one of your limbs has been stuck in a cast, you also have to deal with super-weak muscles surrounding the injured body part. Luckily, you can actually keep those muscles strong by performing resistance training with the opposite limb. It may sound like new-fangled pseudo-science, but this method was actually discovered in1894. Known as the “cross-education effect,” scientists have only recently started to understand how it works. A study at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada found that by working out just your right ankle, for example, you can improve the way in which your nervous system controls muscle activation in both ankles. This won’t build new muscle, but it will help maintain some of the strength in immobile limbs. Don’t go overboard: If you’re trying to keep your left calf strong, you only need to do three sets of 10 relevés on the right leg, two or three times a week.



Beat Bloat

Feeling bloated when you have to perform in nothing more than a leotard and tights can be a complete confidence-buster. Fight the puffiness by upping your calcium intake. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why, but bloating often occurs when calcium levels dip too low. Drink a glass of low fat milk or munch on cheese or yogurt a few hours before curtain.


Try This: Stomach Massage Twist

If you’re looking to develop sky-high développés, focus on strengthening your obliques, the abdominal muscles that run down the sides of your stomach. “The oblique muscles can help distribute some of the work away from overactive quads and allow the side body to pitch in,” says Brooke Siler, owner of Manhattan Pilates studio re:AB. She recommends this exercise:

Sit on your tailbone with your knees bent, toes resting lightly on the mat. Reach your arms up to the ceiling. Exhale as you stretch both legs into a “V” shape and twist your upper body to the right, reaching your right arm toward the back of the room. Inhale as you return to your starting position. Repeat to the left, and complete a total of three to five sets.

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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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