Never-Ending Summer

The summer after I turned 16, I saw my dancing take a leap forward. I had reconnected with my very first Russian ballet teacher, Inna Stabrova, at an intensive, and she’d worked closely with me on my coordination, one of the weakest parts of my technique. When it was time to return home, I was bursting with improved awareness and new knowledge. But I was worried: What if I lost all the things I’d worked so hard to master over the summer?

Returning from a summer program is like coming home after a voyage of self-discovery. During the intensive, you strike out on your own to gain strength as well as deeper understanding of your instrument and your craft. New instructors

provide fresh feedback. Corrections you’ve heard before finally click because they come from a different perspective. But if you’re going to permanently integrate these improvements into your technique, you’ll need to synthesize your summer training with your year-round work. So how can you hold onto the discoveries you’ve just made?

Jump, Then Jot

Yes, it’s summer, but don’t give up the pen and paper. One of the most effective methods of retaining information from class and rehearsal is simply writing it down. Professional dancers record the notes given to them by directors and ballet masters, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit as a student.

Right after grand allégro is finished, jot down every correction you can remember. If you’re a particularly visual person, try drawing diagrams or crafting helpful images, like “Hug a tree” for first position port de bras. Don’t stop there! Often, inspiring anecdotes that teachers tell about their own training and how they got results, or their experiences as performers, are also worth noting.

Take time to review your notes later—not only will it help you internalize your corrections, you’ll also be able to see patterns in your dancing and become more aware of what you need to work on. Use your notebook as a record you can refer back to throughout the year to prioritize your goals. Some dancers even like to post particularly helpful corrections on a wall somewhere in their bedroom so they can think about them on an ongoing basis.

Rock Out To…Corrections?

If you can’t bring yourself to write down notes, consider making audio recordings with your iPod, iPhone or another voice recorder. You can play them back to yourself during short breaks between classes. (Plus, putting both earbuds in and pulling yourself off to the side can send signals to friends that you need to work; sometimes an open notebook doesn’t provide the same kind of privacy.) You can also listen just before going to bed. Some studies say memory retention is aided by sleeping after learning, but since you can’t take a siesta after every correction-filled class, consider listening to your recording again at night.

Meeting Of The Minds

After you return home, set up a time to meet with your instructor. Let him or her know what you learned and ask for help in addressing the new corrections you received, or even the familiar ones that you’re used to getting throughout the year. (“My teachers over the summer also noticed that I tuck my pelvis. Having heard this from you before, I really want to tackle this challenge this year. What are some ways you think I can approach this problem?”) The two of you can work together to set goals for the upcoming year.

By collaborating with your year-round instructor, you’ll demonstrate an active interest in your training, and show them how their help and knowledge is important to you. Plus, you can take this opportunity to clarify any stylistic differences you might have found confusing over the summer. If, for instance, you were exposed to the Balanchine orientation of hips and shoulders in croisé devant after always having been taught the Vaganova way of doing it, you may want to discuss the subtle differences with your instructor. That way, you can better understand the position from both perspectives, and you can practice what your instructor prefers while still remembering the other style for the future.

Retain Any New Approach

If you studied a different style this summer, consider purchasing the DVD of your summer classes or performances. It’s more than just a family keepsake: a DVD can be a tool to help you review what you learned and see what you looked like dancing with Balanchine attack, for instance. And browse through YouTube, dancemedia.com and other video archives for footage of dancers and companies who perform in this style. Lastly, look into whether master classes in that technique are offered in your area during the year, so that you can practice any stylistic differences and keep them in your

muscle memory.

Go The Extra Mile

Take time in an empty studio to work by yourself on what you feel were your most important summer corrections. The only way to ingrain information in your muscle memory is to actively—and regularly—work on it. Practicing outside of class will let you move at your own pace, spending extra time on the things that require the most focus. It also allows you to bypass the necessary distractions of class, such as having to be aware of other dancers’ space or giving full attention to what the instructor is focusing on.

Whatever tools you use to help retain your summer learning, remember to recognize your successes along the way. You’ll build the endurance to keep going, because the process of retaining and applying your corrections from the summer will be just that: a process.

Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch is a former Pointe intern.

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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.

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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."

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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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