Ask Amy: Are Foot Stretchers Safe?


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Click here to send it to Suzanne Farrell Ballet dancer Amy Brandt.


Are foot stretchers safe for dancers to use? —Marissa
I’ve often wondered the same thing myself. There are several versions on the market, all promising to improve flexibility by holding the top of the foot in an extreme point. Many dancers swear by them, but to be sure, I asked Boyd Bender, physical therapist for Pacific Northwest Ballet. His advice? Use cautiously, especially if you have feet with flatter arches. “A foot stretcher might create more leverage through the mid-foot and arch area, and possibly create a flatter and more unstable mid-foot,” he says. In other words, too much pressure could overstretch and weaken this foot type, increasing the tendency to roll in. Also, he warns that if you have a history of foot and ankle injuries, use a foot stretcher only in the presence of a health professional to ensure that you’re not causing additional damage.

In addition, don’t expect miracles. “You can only do so much with the structure of the foot,” Bender explains. While dancers can gain some mobility by stretching soft tissues, the biggest determining factor of a pretty point comes from joint mobility—which is much harder to change. “Foot stretchers will only be effective until your foot and ankle reach skeletal maturity, which happens in your late teens.”


I have trouble doing my stage makeup. My eyes look like black holes and my foundation just makes me look tan. Do you have any advice? —Helena

Perfecting the art of stage makeup is tricky business—I could show you some scary photos from my teenage years! But it’s easy once you get the hang of it. First, find the right foundation—a creamy base that leaves a smooth, matte finish works best. If you have trouble finding the proper shade at the drugstore, try a cosmetics store that allows you to test different products.

The eyes require a little more precision and artistry. The key to making them look more open is to go outside of their natural boundaries a bit and play with light and shadow. Use black liquid eyeliner to line the upper lid, extending just beyond the outer edge on a slight upward diagonal (emphasis on slight!). Then, using a sharp, dark pencil, draw a line just below the lower lash, extending straight out beyond the edge. There should be space between the upper and lower lines—do not connect or crisscross them. Fill in the space between the two lines using a white pencil.

Make sure you have at least three eye shadow colors to contour your eye: white to highlight your browbone, a pink or peach shade for the lid and crease, and a dark shade (think chocolate brown, charcoal or smoky blue) for the outside corner. Lastly, apply false eyelashes to the upper lashline.

Try a few practice runs at home until you get the hang of things. For additional help, check out JAM cosmetics, a stage makeup company that caters specifically to dancers. They offer helpful how-to videos and face charts at jamcosmetics.net.


I’ve been studying at the same studio since I was 8. I love my instructors, but I feel like I should be improving more quickly than I am—I just keep hearing the same corrections over and over. Should I consider changing studios? —Savannah
If you don’t feel you’re receiving the training you need, it may be time for a change. However, before you blame your teachers, reflect on your own work habits. If you’re hearing the same corrections repeatedly, you might not be applying them effectively. Class is a two-way street; your teacher is there to provide feedback, but it’s up to you to take in that advice and put it to use.

Of course, you could also benefit from a fresh perspective. Sometimes a new teacher can phrase a correction differently or offer a unique visualization, causing a stale idea to suddenly pop into an “aha!” moment. You could also glean inspiration from a new personality or teaching style. You don’t necessarily need to abandon your studio just yet—test the waters by taking one class a week with someone else, or attend a summer program to gauge where you stand among your peers. But if you feel that your instructors have taken you as far as they can—and you need more—then it might be time to consider making a switch.

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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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