Your Best Body: Get in Shape for Summer Intensives

Summer intensives can be a shock. Switching from five classes a week to five a day is a big jump—especially if you spent a month relaxing after the school year ended. “Unfortunately, many students come out of shape, and they suffer because of that,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet School principal  Abbie Siegel.

To get the most out of an intensive, you need to arrive prepared. Fine-tune your body strategically by taking a play from the sports world: Use periodization, an approach to training and cross-training that relies on defined periods of rest and activity. It helps athletes make sure they’re in top form at the height of their season. Megan Richardson, MS, ATC, who works with the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, explains: “Periodization is training intensively, taking rest time and then building back up to elite performance level. The cyclical training and cross-training allow the body’s tissues to repair and become stronger in a balanced way.” By following this timeline, you  will reach your peak fitness just in time for your summer program.

First Week Off

After your school year ends, take a break for a week. It should be a time of relative rest—for both your ballet schedule and your supplementary workouts. “Cross-train at a low to moderate level. Yoga, Pilates, swimming and light weight-training are good options,” says Richardson. She suggests dancing about half to three-quarters less than normal. “You want to let your ballet shape rest,” explains Siegel. That way, overused muscles will have a chance to recover.

You’ll need to adjust the intensity based on how many weeks off you have. “If you have a few weeks, your training can remain moderate because you have more time to ramp up slowly,” explains Richardson. “But, if you have less time, you’ll need to ramp up faster, so really take that first week to rest.”

Regardless, continue working on your core. “A strong core acts as a foundation of all movement,” says Richardson. “Whenever we move any body part, the deep muscles of the core activate first. So ongoing core training is appropriate for all stages of periodization.” She recommends this marching exercise: Lie flat on your back with knees bent in a tabletop position in the air. Keeping your knees at right angles, lower one foot at a time down to the floor and return to the tabletop. Repeat as many times as you can with good form and a level pelvis. To increase intensity, straighten your legs.

Three to Five Weeks Before

After your rest, spend two to three weeks focused on cross-training. Only take about half of your typical load of ballet classes, but work out five days a week. Alternate between activities such as weight-training, Pilates, swimming and other workouts.

In particular, work on your stamina so that you can endure the upcoming string of classes and get through challenging variations. “If you can’t breathe, your limbs will take the brunt, leading to injury,” warns Siegel.

One of the quickest ways to increase stamina is with interval training. “Dance is anaerobic: You go all out for 30 seconds jumping and then wait your turn,” says Richardson. “So interval training is dance-specific cardio.” After a five-minute warm-up on an elliptical or bike, go as fast as you can for one minute, then spend three minutes at a moderate pace. Repeat the cycle for 30 minutes.

Also add in exercises integral to ballet, such as calf raises. “We?’ve seen that if dancers do 20 to 25 relevés a day, they decrease their risk of many injuries,”? says Richardson. She suggests this exercise: Standing on the bottom step of a flight of stairs, relevé with two feet, then shift to one foot and lower slowly until your heel dips below the step. Raise back up with two feet, repeating until you fatigue.

Use this time to branch out as well. Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, The Rock School for Dance Education director, suggests trying a modern or jazz class. Not only will this give your movement more fluidity, it will prepare you for new styles you might encounter.

Right Before

Finally, spend the week or two before the intensive refining your ballet technique. Gradually decrease your cross-training while building up to your full load of dance training. “Work at the level you’ll expect of yourself at the intensive for at least two or three days a week,” says Richardson. “You might not be able to match the volume of activity, but you can match the intensity and therefore get a good idea of what type of rest, food and recovery you’ll need, making you truly ready for a great summer.”


The Fat-Blaster You’re Forgetting

If you’re looking to tone up before summer, don’t ignore the dairy aisle. A recent study from Canada’s McMaster University found that overweight women whose diets were high in dairy gained more muscle and lost more fat than women who ate less. The reason? Whey and casein, two proteins found in milk. Whey is digested quickly, while casein takes longer, so your muscles get strength-building amino acids both more quickly and for longer than they do from other sources of protein. Additionally, several studies have shown that the calcium from low-fat dairy reduces body fat by encouraging cells to burn it rather than store it. To get the biggest benefit, drink one cup of milk during the hour directly after class.

The Organic Myth?

Most people assume that organic foods are much healthier than non-organic—but that might not be true. A recent Stanford University study found no major difference between the levels of vitamins in organic and conventional produce. In fact, you might be better off with non-organic produce: Organic farms don’t use genetic modification, which can improve nutrition content—for example, a genetically modified tomato grown at the University of Exeter contains nearly 80 times the amount of antioxidants of an unmodified tomato. However, conventional produce usually comes with harmful pesticides. To avoid them, the National Institutes of Health recommends peeling fruits and vegetables or washing them thoroughly with warm water mixed with salt and lemon juice or vinegar.

Double Duty

A sore body calls for two things: a massage and an ice pack. Fold two steps into one with Trigger Point Performance Therapy’s Cold Roller from tptherapy.com. The stainless-steel roller, which you store in the freezer, offers both myofascial release and cold compression to simultaneously fight inflammation, get rid of lactic acid and work out knots. It’s a quick way to speed the recovery process so that you’re back in business in time for tomorrow’s rehearsal.

The Ballerina's Bad Habit

You work hard on turnout in class every day. But once you leave the studio, make sure you’re in parallel. Walking around turned out stresses your hips, knees, ankles and feet, causing micro-trauma that could lead to injuries like tendonitis or knee pain. It could also hurt your technique. “You’re overusing the muscles you need for ballet class,” says Erika Kalkan, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases. “Those muscles will be fatigued, so you won’t be able to use them as efficiently when you’re dancing.”

Kalkan explains that if your legs naturally turn out when you’re walking, your body is probably compensating for some weakness or tightness. Be sure to stretch your calves as well as your external rotators (sitting down with your left leg straight in front of you, cross your right foot over the left knee—making a number 4—and lean forward with a flat back, then switch sides). Kalkan also recommends strengthening your internal rotators with reverse clamshells (lying on your side with your knees bent and together, lift your top foot) and practicing doming exercises to build up the intrinsic muscles of your feet. Then, once you get on the street, consciously remind yourself to keep your toes facing forward until it becomes a habit. Your technique will thank you.

DIY: Ingrown Toenail Fix

The sharp pinch of an ingrown nail can make every tendu and piqué hurt. What can you do to ease the pain? If you see any redness, swelling or bleeding, see a physician. Otherwise, taking these simple steps can help you find some relief.

1. Soak your toe in warm water.

2. Gently massage the inflamed skin, but don’t tear it—you could cause an infection.

3. With a clean, sharp trimmer, clip the nail so that it meets the edge of the nail fold without a sharp edge, then file the nail down as much as you can with a blunt-end file.

4. Clean the nail with rubbing alcohol.

Dr. Frank Sinkoe, a podiatrist who works with dancers from Atlanta Ballet, says you should also take a look at your pointe shoes. “Evaluate your pointe shoes for a ‘dead’ platform or too wide of a box, which allows the toes to fall into the shoe,” he says. “And make sure you’re not knuckling the toes on pointe.”

Which Are Healthier: Blueberries or Raspberries?

Answer: Raspberries. They have fewer calories and sugars, with more satiating fiber and vitamin C. Both, however, have great antioxidant power, helping your body fight inflammation.

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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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