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Help! All of my friends are going to impressive summer intensives, but I didn’t get in anywhere fancy. I feel like a total loser because I’m just going to a small school. Any advice? —Heidi, TX

I understand what you’re going through—I remember when a girl from my studio received a full scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School’s summer intensive. I couldn’t help but feel inferior about the smaller program I was going to. But I ended up having an amazing experience! I had wonderful teachers, made great friends and came back a much stronger dancer.  I’m not the only dancer who has reaped enormous benefits by attending a smaller program. Raychel Weiner, a dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, spent two summers at prestigious intensives, but her teacher saw little improvement. “She said, ‘You’re not getting the individual attention that you need. Why not try a smaller place?’ ” recalls Weiner. She enrolled at Kansas City Ballet’s (now defunct) satellite program in Crested Butte, CO. At 16, she was the oldest of about 20 students. Although she was leery at first, Weiner grew to appreciate the extra attention. “There were more opportunities to ask questions,” she says. “It was a far more intimate setting and I responded better to that.”

Going to a smaller school can also have professional benefits. “Not everyone gets into American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet,” explains Weiner. “It’s smart to have smaller companies recognize you.” She’s right—I received my first professional job through Milwaukee Ballet’s summer intensive. Try not to compare yourself with your classmates. “This is your time to grow and learn,” says Weiner. You have a great opportunity this summer, so make the most of it!

How can I improve my extensions? I can do the splits on both sides, and if I hold my leg, I can get it up. What do I need to do to get it to stay there? —Rebecca, CT

Extension is a combination of flexibility and strength. Luckily, it sounds like you have good flexi­­bility. Now you need to strengthen the proper muscles in order to hold your leg in position. I’ve always struggled with extensions because I’m terribly inflexible, but once I added core exercises to my stretching routine, I noticed major improvement.

Try taking Pilates mat classes to build strength in your stomach, hip and back muscles. I like doing the Stomach Series before ballet class. Check out The Pilates Body by Brooke Siler, which breaks down each exercise with photos. You can also try a varied series of crunches that target your lower abs and obliques.

A strong supporting leg is also important. As you développé, push down into the floor with the supporting leg to create more stability.

Before class, practice feeling the right muscles. Stretch with your leg on the barre in proper ballet positions—meaning your hips are square and your standing leg is directly underneath you and engaged. Then use your hand to hold your leg in position, such as in a développé devant, à la seconde or arabesque penchée. Test your strength by letting go and seeing how long you can hold it there, and then slowly lower to tendu.

I just found out that I have micro-tears in my right calf muscle. How can I help it heal so that I can keep taking classes and auditioning? How do I stay in shape? —Cherie

I spoke with Michael Leslie, San Francisco Ballet’s physical therapist, about your calf. Luckily, he thinks you have a mild injury that should heal quickly if you take care of it properly. Listen to your symptoms and train accordingly.

You shouldn’t need to take time off, but Leslie recommends gradually building up to taking an entire ballet class. Start by only taking barre, steering clear of anything that irritates your calf. You can also try non–weight-bearing exercises like floor barre, Pilates or the stationary bike. Over time, slowly incorporate center exercises. “You’ll need to be careful during the last 20 minutes of class,” says Leslie. “Listen to your body, and don’t jump as long as you’re in pain.” Since you’re using pain as your guide, avoid masking it with anti-inflammatories.

Overstretching your calf (especially by using slanted board calf-stretchers) can cause further muscle tears. For a milder stretch, try flexing your foot, using muscles in the front of your shin, with both a bent and straight leg. Leslie also recommends wearing a street shoe with a small, stable heel or using a quarter-inch heel lift to prevent further overstretching. You should feel improvement within a few weeks.

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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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