The author, Kyra Laubacher

Jeremy Kyle, Courtesy Laubacher

My First Month as a Professional Dancer in the Age of COVID-19

This is one of a series of articles following one young dancer as she starts her career in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

I moved to Eugene, Oregon, in August, brimming with nerves and excitement to launch my career as an aspirant with Eugene Ballet. After months of quarantining at home in Pittsburgh because of the coronavirus lockdown, transitioning to my new life on the West Coast marked a rapid shift. But in time, it granted me newfound feelings of security. For starters, the ritual of filling up my water bottle, packing my shoes and leotard, putting up my hair and walking into the studio reintroduced a much needed flow of normalcy into my life.


A blue sign taped to a window says "Please stay six feet apart. Stay safe and healthy by practicing physical distancing."

Social distancing signs like this one dot the hallways and studios of Eugene Ballet.

Courtesy Kyra Laubacher

Throughout August, Eugene Ballet offered studio sign-up times so that we could give ourselves maintenance classes during the week. Dancers could choose from three 90-minute time slots per weekday to ensure availability without risking having too many people at once. As a new dancer entering the ranks after months of training in my basement, I could easily acclimate myself with the studios, dancers and overall environment without the pressure of an instructor at the front of the room. After class, we sprayed the floors with vinegar and swept them clean with microfiber towels, wiped down the barres and sanitized any other surfaces we may have touched.

Feeling welcomed by my fellow dancers, I gradually sensed my stamina gaining ground, muscles firing fully and placement reestablishing itself, and by the third week I even worked up to taking center on pointe again (hallelujah!). I became accustomed to the white squares taped on the floor designating proper physical distance, and after two weeks of dancing in a mask my cardiovascular system adjusted to the extra respiratory challenge.

A male dancer stands in the center of a studio with his arms held up, with three female dancers crouched around him.

Clockwise from far right: Laubacher with Savannah Cox, Nina Nicotera and Mark Tucker in rehearsal for #instaballet

Courtesy Laubacher

When Eugene Ballet's artistic staff began offering optional company classes on August 31, I felt confident and ready. The classes, designed to help get us back into shape for our November 23 season start date, have been on a rotating schedule, split between two studios with two pods of up to 10 dancers each. By the end of the first week, my body had transitioned through yet another roller coaster of soreness, struggle, recovery and elation as I adjusted to new instructors and heightened drive. It was incredible—I hadn't done a saut de chat in five months, and suddenly I found myself flying across a giant studio surrounded by fellow dancers, each of us infused with newfound energy. Outside the studio, too, I'd secured a part-time job at a dancewear store, which bolstered the developing sense of normalcy.

I even got to participate in my first professional performance with #instaballet, an interactive dance company co-founded by Eugene Ballet's resident choreographer, Suzanne Haag. We rehearsed two brief phrases in studio before presenting it to our live outdoor audience in early September, building the rest of the dance piece by piece with the viewers' input. This process of co-choreographing with the audience, while characteristic of #instaballet, felt quite new to me. But the experience rejuvenated me artistically. Even with masks on and physical distancing enforced, we were able to create something together with the community in real time.

A mountain in the distance is framed by pine trees and blurred by a smoky orange sky.

A view of Eugene's smoke-filled skies. A recent wildfire forced Eugene Ballet to suspend in-studio classes for two weeks.

Courtesy Kyra Laubacher

Then the wildfires hit the West Coast, interrupting any sense of progress. Eugene's air quality spiked to alarming heights as ash and smoke turned the sky an ominous orange and made it unsafe to breathe the air, even for a few minutes. This put in-studio classes on hold for two weeks (though Eugene Ballet has plans to unveil a spectacular new building in 2021, we rely on outdoor airflow in the current studios). The sudden switch from sauts de chat across the floor to intense indoor quarantine, for new reasons this time, challenged my patience. So when the air began to clear, rain began to fall and company class landed back on the schedule on September 21, I was reminded yet again how incredibly fortunate we are to have the opportunity to dance in the studios at all. Though the future remains uncertain, I hope to use this newfound gratitude to push myself further, learn to live with change and trust in my own capabilities.

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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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