Julie Van Camp teaching dance criticism and aesthetics to Colorado Ballet Academy students. Photo Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Beyond Ballet Class: Enrichment Courses Give Dancers Tools for Becoming Well-Rounded Professionals

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Pointe.

When choosing a pre-professional program, many dancers focus on the number of hours they'll spend training in the studio. But technique is only one ingredient in the recipe for making a professional dancer. To produce well-rounded artists, many ballet schools are expanding their curriculums to include classes in dance history, science, stagecraft and career counseling. “The focus so much now is on technique, but I think it's important for us to go back and develop ourselves as artists and people," says Colorado Ballet Academy director Valerie Madonia. The broader knowledge these supplemental classes bring makes dancers more marketable as professionals, and helps distinguish a good dancer from a great artist.


Dance History and Culture

Whether you study Vaganova or Cecchetti technique, understanding ballet's roots and how the art evolved is important to the development of educated, worldly dancers. Madonia, seeing a big hole in the way dancers are trained, decided to spend an hour out of the studio each week exposing her students to different perspectives of dance and the world. "There is so little time in the studio for dancers to really look at the history and meaning behind the work they are doing," she says.

Madonia brought in Julie Van Camp, a retired California State University, Long Beach, philosophy professor, to give students a sampler of dance aesthetics. When Colorado Ballet performed Concerto Barocco last season, Van Camp used the ballet as a case study for learning about dance criticism and aesthetic theories. Madonia and Van Camp agree that students need to practice thinking about their art form from different dimensions in order to understand the world they are functioning in.

Understanding ballet's beginnings, as well as the cultural and political influences that have affected it throughout the centuries, also helps to inform artistry. For instance, interactive dance history classes offered at Miami City Ballet School allow students to practice movements from different historical periods. They learn about how Louis XIV's stance shown in paintings is an early third position, and how ballet's aesthetic lines changed as skirts shortened in order to show off intricate footwork. "For them to understand why they do what they do and where it came from helps with technical ability," says MCBS school director Darleen Callaghan.

Stagecraft

Kirov Academy of Ballet students in stagecraft class. Photo Courtesy Kirov Academy.

Students interested in choreographing or directing benefit from knowing the technical aspects of putting on a production, running rehearsals and managing a company. But rarely do they get hands-on opportunities to learn these skills. Enrichment courses designed to take dancers behind the scenes can help bridge that gap.

In Introduction to Stagecraft and Design at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, dancers learn about costumes, lighting and sound designs from Noel Greer, a professional stagehand who works in many DC-area theaters. "When students start choreographing, we find that they don't know how to light a stage and how to communicate with the lighting designer," says Kirov Academy artistic director Adrienne Dellas Thornton. The class allows them to practice putting on productions in the academy's theater. "You see them start to look at the theater differently," she says.

Dance Science and Nutrition

Since a dancer's body is her instrument, knowing how it functions and how to take care of it can help maximize performance and prevent injury. Dance science courses give students the necessary tools for a healthy career.

In the nutrition lectures offered at MCBS, dancers learn how to fuel their bodies and grocery shop on a budget. "Their diet and how they are supporting their bodies is as important as their technical training," says Callaghan, especially since many pre-professional students are living away from home for the first time and learning to cook for themselves. Sometimes MCB principal dancers talk to the students about how they eat to sustain their energy for rehearsals and performances. "It sits in their minds a little better when they hear it from one of the principals than if they hear it from me or their moms," says Callaghan.

At the Kirov Academy, pre-professional students are required to take a Dance Science and Principles of Movement class. Taught by George Washington University professor Irina Wunder, students learn to visualize the inner workings of the muscles and how they create movement. "Understanding the actual source of movement in the body helps them comprehend how their instruments work and gain an even greater respect for their art," says Thornton.

Career Counseling

Kirov Academy students in dance history class. Photo Courtesy Kirov Academy.

While getting a job is a pre-professional dancer's ultimate goal, technique class doesn't prepare them for the stress that comes with auditioning, signing contracts and moving to a new city. That's where career-oriented classes come in. For instance, at MCBS, graduating students learn how to write resumés and cover letters, as well as research companies around the world. "It was a comfort to know that if it didn't work out at Miami, I'd have a package that I can send out to other companies," says MCB corps member Ellen Grocki, a graduate of the school.

In career counseling classes at the Kirov Academy, dancers learn about a variety of topics related to professional life, including how unions work, how to research housing and how to come up with a budget. "It gave me an idea of what to expect when I made the transition from student to professional," says alumna Megan Amanda Ehrlich, who danced at San Francisco Ballet.

And that added knowledge ultimately makes dancers more marketable. "The more you know as a dancer," says Madonia, "the more you have to offer as an artist."

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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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