The Danger Zone

Dancers are highly disciplined by nature. But young performers sometimes fall into bad habits without even realizing it. Or they focus so completely on getting results that they simply ignore the consequences. Take a look at our list of all-too-common risky behaviors—you might see your reflection in the mirror.

 

1. Replacing food with supplements
Like most of us, dancers look for shortcuts. But relying on supplements as a primary source of nutrition is one of the biggest errors a dancer can make. “The purpose of supplements is to supplement your food intake,” says Peggy Swistak, a nutritionist who works with Pacific Northwest Ballet. “Dancers will go to the health food store and someone tells them they need extra iron or B vitamins. Even the Vitamin Waters: There is one for energy, sleep, weight control or the immune system.” Dancers aren’t chemists, and fooling around with supplements can lead to overdosing. Instead of relying on pills and potions, you should be getting your nutrition and energy from food. Play it safe: Take one multi-vitamin/mineral supplement to cover your bases and eat a variety of nutritious foods.

 

2. Forcing your arch
Trying to achieve the perfect foot with a beautifully stretched arch often becomes an all-consuming affair for dancers. So what do they do? Place their feet under the couch, have a friend sit on their toes or hang on to the barre and force all their weight onto an overstretched arch. Ouch! If you do these exercises, “you’re likely to overstretch the tendons and ligaments which provide stability to the foot and ankle,” says Amy Humphrey, a physical therapist who works with The Washington Ballet. This is bad news, since ligaments don’t heal on their own. Overstretching will forever make your ankles more susceptible to common ballet injuries such as sprains.

 

A smarter solution is to work on the mechanics of your point. “If a dancer can just point her foot using her ankle, then just her mid-foot and finally her toes, then she has a better chance of being able to stretch her feet,” says Humphrey. If you still have trouble, it might be due to stiff joints. Consult a physical therapist for specific solutions.

3. Fasting during the day
Many dancers try to stay slim by eating very little during the day. But that tactic only leaves you feeling ravenous after dark. “Then there’s a lot of night eating that can lead to weight gain,” says Swistak. “You end up overdoing it on foods like chocolate, peanut butter or crackers.” It becomes a vicious cycle: no breakfast, an apple for lunch and then binging at night—and waking up the next morning not feeling hungry. Dancers who fall prey to this also end up with little energy to dance, hurting their performance in the studio and onstage, and increasing the risk of injury. Swistak says the simple solution is to reverse your schedule: “Eat during the day and diet at night.”

4. Skipping cardio
Today’s dancers know the benefits of cross-training. However, during company layoffs or school breaks, they typically overlook this part of their regimen. “Some do Gyrotonics and Pilates, but they often forget cardio training,” says Humphrey. And when they return to the studio, they find they’ve lost the stamina to get through rehearsal.

 

This is such a big problem that some companies even offer financial incentives to keep up your cardio training. Every year at The Washington Ballet, dancers go through a fitness screening—and those who pass receive a bonus. “They needed to excel in cardiovascular fitness and upper body strength to get a bonus this year,” says Humphrey. Plan time in your weekly schedule for cardio, which can include running, using the elliptical trainer (easy on the joints), swimming, rowing or doing step aerobics.

5. Sneaking a smoke

Casual smoking often seduces dancers into a dangerous tango. It seems safe enough, because you aren’t a regular “smoker.” And many dancers are attracted to smoking because it can act as a weight deterrent. But consider the consequences: According to medical experts, there is no safe level of exposure to cigarettes.  Even indulging at parties or during stressful perfor­mance seasons puts you at risk for such illnesses as emphysema, strokes, heart attacks and lung cancer. And casual smoking can still be addictive. If you are craving, consider a nicotine patch, acupuncture, hypnosis, an online support group or asking your physician about drugs like Bupropion, which helps curb smoking addiction.

6. Warming up improperly
When dancers enter the studio, many immediately plop into a second position split or other extreme stretches. But if your muscles aren’t warm, stretching can strain or tear them. “I see this most in my adolescent preprofessional dance students,” says Humphrey. The point of a warm-up is to get your blood flowing and prepare your muscles for action. Always start your pre-class warm-up by increasing your heart rate with exercises such as barre work, Pilates, jogging, crunches or even jumping rope. It will be safer—and easier—to work on flexibility once blood is flowing to your muscles.

7. Not being able to cook
You don’t have to be Julia Child, but get some basic cooking skills. When dancers are on their own or
living with other students, the easiest way out is to get fast food, which can lead to weight gain. Cooking Light magazine gives light, easy recipes and health and exercise tips. Rachael Ray’s “30 Minute Meals” cookbook can be helpful for ideas to whip up fast, practical meals. And the Food Network has plenty of tips as well. Bon appétit!

And break those destructive habits. Treat your body with care—it’s your instrument.

Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman contributes to several dance publications.

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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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