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Holiday TLC: 8 Ways Dancers Can De-Stress and Treat Themselves at Home

If you find yourself with extra downtime this Nutcracker season, but counterintuitively higher stress levels, you're likely not alone. "COVID-19 has been this underlying baseline stress in the back of everybody's lives. Whether you realize it or not, it's affecting everybody," says Dr. Kathleen Bower, director of dance medicine for Miami City Ballet.

You may not need the post-matinee ice baths or power naps that come with a typical holiday performance run, but that doesn't mean you don't deserve—and need—a little extra TLC. Read on for relaxation tips to rejuvenate your mind and body after a long, hard year.


Deep Breathing

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Consider this the gold standard to incorporate into every activity on this list. Whether it's during yoga or in the bath, Bower says, find 10 minutes each day to "get into that nice, deep diaphragm breathing." This actually has a measurable effect on your nervous system, bringing it into its parasympathetic "rest-and-digest" state, rather than its sympathetic "fight-or-flight" state that's so often engaged during a fast-paced performance season.

Mindfulness Walks

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Josh Spell, a licensed social worker, therapist and former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer warns that dancers' overachieving tendencies often creep into what's supposed to be a restorative activity. He loves mindfulness walks where, he says, "the intention is not for exercise. It's more for connecting with nature and mental clarity."

If you need help getting into that mindful place, Bower recommends apps like Calm, Headspace or Ten Percent Happier.

Epsom Salt Baths

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"A big part of why we think they work so well is because Epsom salts are high in magnesium, which athletes tend to be deficient in," says Bower. As an extra relaxation hack, she suggests tapping into all of your senses while soaking. Light a scented candle, put on some relaxing music and even eat your favorite treat, like a square of chocolate, in the tub. "Then you're really touching on all of those senses and getting that feeling of warmth within the body," say Bower.

Self-Massage

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A lighter workload is the perfect time to address any chronically tight areas or imbalances. Bower particularly likes using a foam roller for self-massage. Rather than quickly rolling over major muscle groups, she says, pinpoint a specific area by rolling slowly to the point of restriction (where the muscle feels tight and is giving more resistance on the roller), then relaxing and breathing into it for 30 seconds to a minute. This helps open up the fasciae surrounding the muscle fibers.

Sleep and Nutrition Best Practices

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During a typical Nutcracker run, Miami City Ballet dancers travel a lot between theaters, so Bower is always prioritizing their recovery. This year, it's just as critical. Your body is likely exhausted from the challenges of cramped class space at home and inconsistent schedules, making foundational health as important as ever. Bower recommends that you make time for well-balanced meals and get eight to 10 hours of sleep per night for optimal musculoskeletal recovery.

Anything Routine-Breaking

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Whether it's trying an entirely new dance style or even just a different warm-up before your regular Zoom ballet class, disconnecting your autopilot tendencies will stimulate new neural pathways, which is important for your long-term happiness. "That's what habits are, grooves in your brain," says Spell. "Every December, if the only groove that's really being carved out or traversed is The Nutcracker, that can sort of narrow who you are as a person." The very act of switching up your routine, even in something as simple as eating dessert before dinner, trains your brain to forge new paths in the future.

Get in the Holiday Spirit

A wood table covered in flour and adorned with holiday cookie baking items, including a rolling pin, a star-shaped cookie cutter, a cookie sheet and cookies shaped like stars, reindeer and trees.

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Don't let holiday activities fall by the wayside just because you aren't performing. Instead, view this as an opportunity to make space for new ways to celebrate safely. For example, Spell suggests making a pilgrimage to see your neighborhood's best holiday light displays.

Bower notes that connection with family and friends is particularly important. Even if you can't see each other in person due to the pandemic, try something creative, like a Zoom cookie-decorating party.

Journaling

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If you're having difficulty dealing with downtime, you're not alone. Spell encourages dancers to question their relentless quest for self-improvement, using journaling as a way to slow down and find some self-forgiveness: "There are a lot of questions to explore around the discomfort in taking a day off," says Spell. "For example, 'Where did I get the idea that I'm lazy if I do choose to relax?' It's about challenging that perspective that you need to be doing something productive all the time."

Essentially, a less busy Nutcracker season does not negate the need for downtime. In these challenging times, it's as important as ever to prioritize yourself—and to rest and reset.

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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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