The Story of a Step

Walks and runs may seem like the simplest moments you have onstage. But the way a dancer steps reveals so much about their interpretation of a role: what they’re thinking, what their motives are, what their backstory has dictated. It’s often the first impression a performer makes onstage and, many times, the last. Four dancers told Pointe about how these basic movements inform some of their signature roles.

National Ballet of Canada

Role: Albrecht in Giselle
Just walking establishes who Albrecht is: an aristocrat pretending to be a peasant. You need to have a different demeanor from everyone else. If you do that, the audience subconsciously understands a little more about who you are. I imagine myself as Erik Bruhn—he was the ultimate prince onstage. He was perfection because he did so little: He pulled up in the middle, and was very precise with the way his feet touched the floor, always aware of his line and his demeanor.

When I worked with Marcelo Gomes on Albrecht, he told me that you have to indicate that you’re not really going to Giselle. She’s definitely the one coming to you, she’s the one who is more attached and in love. You take your time. You walk and stop, walk and stop. You know what you’re doing to her and you know how to do it. You’ve done it before.

In the second act when Albrecht enters with the lilies, he’s in a daze, this empty zone where the guilt is so intense that he can’t process anything. That first walk is incredibly articulate in the lower body, but the upper body is so heavy; the whole weight of the world is on his shoulders.

Later, when running away from the wilis, the hard part is that you still have to look like a prince. I try to push my feet and especially the insides of my heels forward, so they don’t drag behind me like I’m skating. I also think of pulling my stomach in, so that my abs and my lats are initiating the run—my upper body and my chest and my intention are taking me there. Running like that should be triggered by emotion, but crafted for aesthetics.

American Ballet Theatre
Role: Odette/Odile in Swan Lake

To convey Odette’s sense of terror when the Prince first enters, I make her steps really quick, like a frantic animal scrambling to get away from a predator. One thing that Alexei Ratmansky always stressed when I worked with him on other ballets is changing your pacing any time you have a long run or walk to make it more interesting. So when I’m running away from the Prince, I look back and take two slower steps and then take off really fast.

For Odette’s entrance with the other swans, when the music swells, I run out with a lot of resolve. She’s strong in that moment—trying to protect her flock. It’s about carrying my back and my chest through space, and the bottom half of my body responds to the upper half.

With Odile, there is none of Odette’s hesitancy or shyness. Every step Odile takes is fearless, seductive and confident. I try to make it vulture-y. I imagine that I’m wearing a really hot black dress and heels at a party. Susan Jaffe taught me that Odile is scanning the room, always calculating, so you really use your eyes with every step. And Odile takes her time, no rush; she knows everyone is captivated by her.

In the last act, Odette has a sense of weighty hopelessness. First you run in desperation; then when you see Siegfried, every step conveys heartbreak and despair. It’s not just betrayal, it’s losing all hope of freedom. Everything is ruined.

San Francisco Ballet
Role: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet

With Juliet, you have to keep in mind that, yes, you need to hold yourself in a very classical balletic line, but you still need a sense of humanness. In Juliet’s first scene with the nurse, the running is playful and quite energetic. I am conscious of pointed feet, but I also move with a real sense of freedom.

In the ballroom scene, I’m trying to act a little more mature, with an elegance and a dignified walk, playing the part that my parents want me to play. When I meet Romeo, there’s a light, playful energy—as opposed to when I meet Paris, where my walk has a more contained tone.

I always have to practice running up and down the stairs for the balcony scene so that I feel comfortable, because when I’m caught up in the moment and my heart’s racing, I don’t want to miss a step and go sliding down! I run halfway down quite quickly, then I take a moment and pause to look up, then continue running down. As much as Juliet is ready to jump off the balcony to dance with Romeo, there is that moment of hesitation. She knows she shouldn’t be doing this, but she still wants to.

As Juliet, there can be a little lift in the shoulders in moments of tension in the body. Or the shoulders are down and back and open when there’s an abandonment to love. Or the chin can be down, and the shoulders a little more forward and down—a kind of angelic, nervous feeling. In the balcony scene, I run chest forward with my heart, with a lot of abandon.

When Friar Laurence marries us, we walk towards the altar, and there is more weight in my step, more thoughtfulness, an acknowledgment of the importance of what is going on. It’s a rash decision, but we are doing it together.

At the end of the ballet, you’re tired emotionally and physically. In that final scene at the crypt, it’s almost like I don’t even pick my feet up, because I don’t even care to. If you do it right, the body language of that moment tells her whole story.

Miami City Ballet
Role: Liberty Bell in Stars and Stripes

The music is very exciting with a military feel, so right away I’m very erect and upright. But at the same time I’m still fun and flirtatious. You can’t help but burst onto the stage. The ballerina’s leading the pack, so she’s confident, but not regal. She struts. She has oomph to her. And if she’s going to run, it’s because she’s heading somewhere to do something important.

In the pas de deux, you’re dancing and dancing, but then in the middle, you take a little walk, which I think is brilliant of Balanchine because it gives you a moment to say who you are. Every ballerina has to work on that moment. I’ve found that if I really close my fists like I’m marching, swaying my elbows with my shoulders as I walk, holding my head up high and staying on my high demi-pointe, it makes it a real moment without throwing away the step.

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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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