Has Wellness Reached Its Limits?

New York City Ballet gives its dancers’ bodies exemplary care. The dancers themselves, however, don’t necessarily take advantage of it.

The company started its wellness program in 2001 to cut down on injuries. All apprentices and first- and second-year corps members now get personalized cross-training advice in mandatory physical screenings. Apprentices are also required to attend orthopedic screenings. Dancers benefit from company-sponsored sessions with nutritionists, physical therapists, orthopedists, chiropractors and massage therapists, as well as annual lectures on stress management, nutrition and injury prevention.

The results have been impressive: Within two years of the program’s launch, the weeks of disability logged by dancers dropped by 46 percent and the number of major work compensation claims fell by 24 percent. Yet, despite this success, not all dancers use the program. “Even though it’s open to the entire company, more experienced dancers may prefer to stick to their own routines,” says company wellness consultant and Dance Magazine advice columnist Linda Hamilton, who was part of the research team that created the program.

Throughout the ballet world, when dancers have the freedom, they prefer to push toward perfection rather than reduce the chance of injury with a carefully moderated program. No matter how many lectures they’re given, dancers make the final decisions when it comes to their own bodies, and when they are young and feel indestructible, they will do whatever it takes to succeed—the field is too competitive to risk falling behind. “Dancers typically have very high standards for themselves,” Hamilton says. “They overwork, they push in spite of feeling tired or in pain—and then they end up injured for longer.” 

The health care community has been trying to combat this problem for more than two decades. The concept of wellness in ballet became formalized in 1990 with the inception of the International Association of Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS). Inspired by the success of sports medicine, an array of physiologists, biomechanics researchers, physical therapists and orthopedists came together to help dancers become stronger, better athletes while decreasing their chances of injury.

Dancers have embraced some of IADMS’ suggestions to improve strength and flexibility: Cross-training through Pilates, Gyrotonic, floor barre and other forms of conditioning has aided a leap in technical capability. But many are still hesitant to heed warnings to get more rest, to sit out as soon as they feel pain, to stop asking a partner to stand on top of their feet to help stretch their arches. They maintain a certain amount of skepticism that anyone from outside their world could truly understand the sacrifices ballet requires. Their teachers had successful careers without worrying about every tendon and ligament, so why should they?

It’s with respect to this point that wellness seems to have reached a hurdle. Most dancers now know enough to understand the physical implications of what they’re doing, but they’re unwilling to make training modifications that they fear would hold them back from professional success. Do teachers need to do more to convince students? Do dance medicine practitioners need to try harder to translate the principles into terms dancers can embrace? Or does ballet culture, with its race for higher développés and ever more impressive jumps, demand unhealthy entry requirements for a career?

“It’s hard for dancers to appreciate dance medicine until they experience the benefits,” says Tom Welsh, PhD, a former president of IADMS who conducts research on healthy approaches to training dancers. He notes that sports medicine (which is about 25 years older than dance medicine) also met with suspicion at first. “Whenever science first starts in a field, scientists don’t know how to measure what they’re studying and they don’t know what the priorities are, so what they do is clumsy. There’s a learning curve to figuring out what needs to be done and how to do it in a convincing, relevant way.”

Take turnout, for example. “You hear people say, ‘Don’t force your turnout.’ That’s nonsense,” says Martin Fredmann, artistic director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC. “If you walk into a studio without turnout, you’re not going to be a ballet dancer.” However, anyone who’s studied anatomy knows that 180-degree rotation is a physically unrealistic goal, no matter how much a dancer pulls up or initiates from the hips. Straining to achieve perfect turnout puts dangerous pressure on lower body ligaments, creates abnormal alignment and generally increases the risk of injury. Yet when it comes down to having either healthy joints or a career, the choice, to many, is obvious: Ambitious dancers will only listen to medical advice as long as it doesn’t get in the way of nabbing that contract or role.

“Ballet dancers are high-level athletes. People have to remember, no pain, no gain,” says Valentina Kozlova, a former Bolshoi and NYCB dancer who runs a private studio in New York City. “You can follow certain rules, but it’s impossible to completely prevent injuries.”

Marcia Dale Weary, founder of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, points out that other countries sidestep this problem by mainly training students born with natural ballet bodies, while the more democratic U.S. schools take anyone who wants to dance, no matter how harsh the technique will be on their body. “You have to work carefully with those dancers,” she says. “But in the end, you must insist they turn out.”

Welsh believes there simply isn’t enough anatomical education built into dance training to get the messages across in a convincing way. “Most athletes today actually study sports science,” he says. “That way they understand much better how and why they do certain exercises, instead of having to be persuaded. They’re more likely to know when to ask for help. There are some dance science programs available now, but only in university settings.”

To convince young dancers that holding back now will help them perform longer over time will require a radical shift in philosophy within the ballet field. “Dancers are usually trained to be stoic, and they’re often afraid that if they hold back, they might be seen as lazy,” says Hamilton. “They think work will solve everything.” 

Dancers seem to appreciate dance medicine’s benefits most when their focus shifts from launching their careers to extending them; if they’ve been gambling with their bodies, dancers usually start to rethink their approach when they begin getting injured. Luckily, more of today’s teachers had doctors save their knees, their ankles, their hips when they were dancing, and they can appreciate wellness’s benefits on a personal level. “Many younger teachers now have that background, and it means they’ll be more inclined to include it in how they train students,” says Welsh. This generation may pass on its experience to the next; the messages will be given from former dancers to future dancers, hopefully in a persuasive way that takes into account both the need for excellence and the power of healthy training to lengthen careers. “If dancers approach wellness in an intelligent way,” says Hamilton, “it’s not going to stop them from excelling; it’s going to help them.”

Jennifer Stahl is Pointe’s senior editor.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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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