Tyler Donatelli, shown here in Etudes, initially turned down an offer to train at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Are You Ready to Train Away from Home Year-Round?

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Pointe.

Harper Ortlieb knew something needed to change. Her three-hour commute to daily classes at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre was unsustainable, and her obsession with ballet was intensifying. The family considered “away-from-home" training, but when Ortlieb, then 14, was accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's year-round program in Moscow (after attending their summer intensive in Connecticut), they were caught off guard. “Harper had an unshakable dream of training in Russia, but until that point it was just that—a dream," says Layne Baumann, Harper's mother. “We knew time was moving swiftly, and this was one of those rare opportunities that can truly shape your future."


The idea of moving to Russia to study is huge, but even in less-extreme situations the factors to consider are the same. Often, summer intensives lead to offers to stay for a school's year-round program. It's an exciting honor to be asked, but leaving home to train is a big deal, no matter how near or far. With so much at stake, it's a time for honest conversations between students, their families and their teachers to assess whether they're ready to leave home.

Are You Mature Enough?

Bo and Stephanie Spassoff, co-directors of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, first ask potential students to define their goal. "Assess the situation objectively," says Bo Spassoff. "Do you really want to be a professional ballet dancer? If yes, the only way that's going to happen is with a very good sense, from the get-go, of what it's going to take and how much work it's going to be."

Ortlieb poses outside Red Square in Moscow after being accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Courtesy Layne Baumann.

While serious students know what hard work is, training full-time without the comforts of home or parental support adds a lot more pressure. Living 24/7 with peers might sound like a blast at first, but what about balancing dance, academics and household responsibilities? Houston Ballet corps member Tyler Donatelli says her mother needed evidence that she had the maturity and organizational skills to handle it. "She made it very clear that I was staying home until I was 16 and could prove I could live in a somewhat adult environment," Donatelli remembers. "I didn't really agree with her, but now I realize she was right. At 16, I could make better decisions about things I would have questioned if I'd been younger."

An important gauge of a student's readiness is emotional maturity— which may differ from their sense of responsibility or independence. Will residential life make it hard to stay focused? "It's impossible to hide poor social skills or bad behavior in a residential setting," says Donna Mattiello, academic director of The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory in Torrington, Connecticut. "So if a student struggles at home with poor judgment, following rules that they don't agree with or self-discipline (like keeping their room clean and doing homework), those issues will be magnified at school."

Pointe class at the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory. Don Perdue, Courtesy Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory.

Artistic director Victoria Mazzarelli agrees, saying even students who've attended Nutmeg's summer program should visit during the school year. "It's just completely different. Spending a couple of days to pick up on the vibe and see how it feels will reveal a lot. It tells you pretty quickly whether it's the right experience for you, because emotional readiness is the most important thing. Without that, everything will fall apart."

Handling the Workload and Competition


For those offered year-round study, both Nutmeg and The Rock School conduct in-person talks with the whole family, if possible. The Spassoffs want to make sure everyone is involved and committed. "We listen to their concerns and never try to manipulate their decision," says Stephanie Spassoff. "Sometimes a student is very enthusiastic about coming, but just doesn't want to leave home yet—and that's fine."

Nutmeg students on a weekend outing. Courtesy Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory.

The increased number of dancing hours will be physically strenuous, but Bo Spassoff also notes dancers must transition mentally when going from a regional school to a larger one. "Students have to realize that here, they may not be the best in their class. They need to accept the challenge to work hard. Some can't come to grips with that and are unhappy."

Weighing Pros and Cons

Even if you feel you can handle the workload, responsibility and emotional strain of living away from home, it's important to consider what you'd truly gain—or stand to lose. Donatelli knew that along with the great training she was already getting at her home school, Southland Ballet Academy, there were other valuable benefits that gave her extra confidence when she joined Houston Ballet II. "Because it's a smaller school, I got to do bigger roles in our productions," she says. "In a professional school, dancing the lead in a full-length ballet isn't something you'd find yourself doing."

A student dorm at the Rock School for Dance Education. Courtesy Rock School.

Focusing on what's truly best for you—and your family—will make the choices of whether and when to leave home much clearer. The Ortlieb family had heart-to-heart talks about logistics and finances, extensively researched what life in Russia would be like and decided the time was right. Donatelli's plan worked because she trusted that turning down an offer to stay at Houston Ballet Academy wouldn't mean shutting that door forever. Communicating with the school's director and expressing her interest was key. "We kept in touch, and I got the HBII contract two years later. They knew I'd come when I was ready."

Tips: Have a Family Conversation

Because it's hard to predict how you'll feel once you move away from home, it's critical to dig deep before you make a decision. What should you and your family talk about? Here are some starters:

  • What makes you excited about going to this particular school?
  • How do you feel when you imagine leaving your family, pets, teachers and friends?
  • How structured is the school's residential program? Do thoughts of adhering to rules, following a set schedule and being monitored by someone other than your parents make you squirm?
  • How hard will it be to miss out on birthday celebrations, family events and holidays?
  • What would you do if you and your roommate disagreed about bedtimes, cleanliness, socializing?
  • How do you handle stress? Boredom?
  • What will you gain by moving away from home to train? Is there anything you stand to lose?
  • It's expensive to live away from home. Can this opportunity wait a year while you save up and make a financial plan?


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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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