Ask Amy: Tackle a New Technique


Have a question?
Click here to send it to Suzanne Farrell Ballet dancer Amy Brandt.


A recent move forced me to transfer from my serious Vaganova school to a Balanchine-based academy. While I think Balanchine looks beautiful, I’m having a hard time applying the idiosyncrasies to my body, and the constant corrections are frustrating. What are some tips for adapting to a new technique? —Lauren
I had a similar experience when I joined The Suzanne Farrell Ballet after years of dancing with a mixed-repertoire company. I never had any Balanchine training growing up, so my first season was definitely a crash course. There were so many different stylistic elements to adjust to: the straight back leg in pirouette preparations, the use of port de bras and épaulement, the musicality, spotting front. And while it sort of felt like speaking a second language (especially that spotting front business!), I did get the hang of it eventually.

It’s important to keep an open mind. Sometimes dancers can be stubborn, viewing one technique as “wrong” or “right,” but try not to resist your new teachers’ corrections. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, too, so that you understand why certain things are emphasized. Adjusting will take time for both your body and mind. While this initial learning period feels frustrating, you’ll gradually start incorporating changes into your technique (I noticed an improvement in my speed and attack after about one year). And remember, you’re not “canceling out” your Vaganova training. You’re just building on top of it. Your knowledge of both styles will allow you to be more versatile—which is definitely advantageous.


I recently found out that I have collapsing arches. I use orthotics in my street shoes, but is there any way to support my feet when I’m wearing ballet slippers? —Aviva
Collapsing, or fallen, arches occur when the foot’s arch drops downward during weight-bearing activities. This foot also tends to pronate, or roll in towards the big toe excessively, putting dancers at risk for injury. Dr. Alan Woodle, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s foot and ankle specialist, admits that while conventional orthotics are great for street shoes, they’re too rigid for ballet slippers. “You’ll need something that’s flexible,” he says. “Otherwise you won’t be able to articulate your foot.”

Woodle designs pliable, custom dance orthotics for his patients, but says that the next best option would be to purchase low-profile, silicone gel arch inserts from the drugstore. Slip- or strap-on arch sleeves can also provide necessary support and help prevent pronation. Footsmart.com carries a wide selection of gel inserts and arch sleeves, and helps you find products based on your foot type and ailment.

Taping techniques—called Low-Dye taping—can also help. “This is more of a temporary option because the skin can get irritated,” says Woodle. Using strips of one-inch athletic or Kinesio tape, your podiatrist can show you how to create various stirrup and crisscross patterns along the bottom of your foot to help support your arches. Woodle recommends using a spray or roll-on adhesive first to prevent sweaty tape from slipping off.


I dance in a professional part-time company with a short performance season. I love the company, but I’m eager for more performing opportunities. What are my options? —Helen
Try looking into freelancing during the off-season. This takes serious networking skills and may mean temporarily working in another city if your own dance community is limited. Reach out to smaller companies and choreographic projects to see if they need dancers for their performances—they’re all over the place in big cities like New York and San Francisco. Here is where social media is an excellent ally. Let your friends know you’re looking for gigs and ask them if they know of any opportunities. Think creatively, too—opera companies often hire dancers for their productions, and ballet schools frequently bring in guest artists to dance leading roles in their performances.

While hiring yourself out takes time and resourcefulness, it gives you a chance to build your resumé, gain experience and shape your own career. But if freelancing doesn’t appeal to you and you’re not satisfied with your company’s performance schedule, you may want to consider moving on to a larger company with a longer season.

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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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