Company Life: Promoted at Last

From the moment she gets her first company contract, every corps de ballet dancer dreams of moving up through the ranks. A lucky few are promoted quickly. But more often, corps members must work for many seasons before the title of “soloist" finally comes (if it ever does). While that wait can feel discouraging, it can also be a lesson in patience and tenacity—and in how to find your own artistic opportunities. We asked three dancers who spent several years in the corps de ballet to share the breakthrough moments that finally resulted in their promotions, and the lessons that kept them going on their prolonged paths to the spotlight.


Kylee Kitchens
Joined Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2000; promoted to soloist in 2012
I was in the corps for 11 years. Some people might have given up on a promotion around year 10. I felt discouraged at times, but I knew I wanted to keep dancing. I had discussions with director Peter Boal about what I needed to work on. He recommended improving my overall strength, so I started exercising outside of class and going to yoga.

There was a time when I didn't think I would ever be promoted, and I had to learn to be okay with that. I was getting solos and variations, so I could find moments onstage that were fulfilling for me. You have to come to a place of peace within yourself—if a promotion isn't going to happen, dancing professionally is a huge opportunity in itself.

In 2008, we had a full-company audition for Ulysses Dove's Vespers. The stager, Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, saw something in me and chose me as one of the 11 cast members. The movement in the ballet is powerful, almost rough. Until then, I'd been seen as a classical, lyrical dancer. Realizing I could do this different style of movement gave me so much more confidence. And I think after Peter saw me do Vespers, he saw a different, more diverse dancer in me, too.


Alicia Fabry
Joined Carolina Ballet in 2006; promoted to soloist in 2010
My career has always been a slow process. I'm a very shy person, and I've struggled with confidence issues. You can't change your personality in a year. Opening myself up took some time.

If I did have a breakthrough moment, it was in 2010, when I was cast as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. It was my first big solo part, and it was a good transition for me. I was comfortable in the role—it was technical, but not too technical. Things picked up from there: A couple months later, I was cast as Effie in La Sylphide, and at the beginning of the next season, I was promoted to soloist.

I'm a positive person, but I think we all get discouraged at some point in our careers. I was a late starter, not studying ballet seriously until I went to English National Ballet School at 18. (At that point, I couldn't even do a double pirouette! I had a lot to catch up on.) I've had a few injuries that delayed me as well. You feel like you're disappointing yourself and your director. But, you know, it's life, and at some point, you have to get past it and say, I'm going to move forward. I wish I'd understood that sooner in my career.


Jordana Daumec

Joined The National Ballet of Canada in 2004; promoted to second soloist in 2010
During my second year in the corps, I understudied the role of the Bee in our Nutcracker. It's a big jumping role, which I love, and I'd always wanted to do it—it felt so “me." A couple of days before we closed, they decided to put me on. After that, I started getting more demi-soloist work and some solos in full-length ballets.

Performing those parts gave me the drive to push myself to improve. I wanted to show that I wasn't just a corps member capable of doing soloist work—I was actually capable of being a soloist. That was a matter of proving two things: that I was dependable and consistent, and that I had the technique to handle regular soloist casting. I knew I had to polish my port de bras and make sure my feet were clean, in particular. Once I refined those things, my promotion came.

I did have days where I thought, Oh, all I really want is to be a soloist. But then I'd ask myself: What's more important, having the title, or doing the work? I think a lot of young dancers focus too much on the title. Everybody wants to make it to soloist and principal—I mean, that's why we started dancing. But you can't control whether they're going to give you a soloist contract or not. All you can control is yourself. You just keep trucking ahead.

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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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