Summers to Remember

Training with other students in the pressure-cooker environment of a summer intensive can be daunting. But sometimes the right teacher comes along to provide a hopeful ballerina-to-be with the necessary tools, guidance and inspiration, and a career begins to take shape. Three top dancers recall the invaluable counsel and mentoring they received during their summer training.

Jennifer Kronenberg

Former Miami City Ballet principal

I always knew I wanted a career in dance, and my teacher, Teresa Aubel, was instrumental in making it happen. I studied with her every summer at Once Upon a Time, her school in Queens. She helped me to understand what I was getting myself into—that life as a dancer wasn’t necessarily going to be easy and that, coming from a small school, we’d been sheltered and nurtured.

The Once Upon a Time intensive that made the biggest impression on me was the summer before I went to the School of American Ballet for the winter term in 1993. At the time, I thought it was quite a negative experience, but looking back, it was exactly what I needed. I think she felt that summer was her last chance to get everything out of me that she could. She really wanted me to understand that I was about to step into a whole other ball game. I needed to put a match under my behind. I needed to move faster, to lose five pounds. I just thought she was being mean—I couldn’t believe it. She even made me teach the younger kids so that I would start analyzing things from a different perspective. I was there all day long.

When I got to SAB, I realized, “Oh my god, she was right. How did I not listen to her?” She had shaped my work ethic and my approach to my career. She had exposed me to all different sorts of repertoire and styles, from Lilac Fairy and Little Swans to the Israeli hora and classical Indian bharata natyam. (Picture a very young me dancing Afro-Cuban—I’m not kidding!) Going back and mentally revisiting those dance dialects has helped me tremendously throughout my professional career.

Now I teach for our summer intensive here at Miami City Ballet. I think the best advice I can give to students is to be willing to work. Try to come in shape because the hours and the class schedules are intense. So many injuries happen because kids are not prepared to handle the intensity.

Sarah Lane

American Ballet Theatre soloist

Every summer, my school, The Timothy M. Draper Center for Dance Education in Rochester, New York, brought in Fiona Fairrie, who had been a dancer with Stuttgart Ballet. I had her from my first summer intensive when I was 12 until I graduated at 18. She always had this kind of energy; she was really honest. I loved watching her demonstrate: She was very classically trained and had been coached in many classical roles, so she brought a lot of that experience into her classes. My regular teacher, Timothy Draper, was extraordinary, but as a ballerina you need the influence of a professionally experienced female ballet instructor. Fiona was thoughtful in her approach to the finest detail. I wanted to mimic every good quality I saw in her.

I think it was her personality that made us click. She was really enthusiastic about what she did. She was encouraging and positive, but she didn’t put flowers on anything—she said things as they were. It made me a better dancer, because I knew if she said, “Good,” she meant it. She would get on me about my port de bras, my épaulement, supporting my elbows and not breaking my wrists. She constantly worked with me on the proper position of my head as I moved through port de bras. She also taught me how to work my legs without gripping—actually having the right amount of energy without overusing the muscles.

My advice for students is to try not to get competitive at summer intensives. Don’t look around at other dancers and try to see how you fit in. Don’t be intimidated by teachers or other students. You are who you are as a dancer and you’re there just to work and to learn. It can be overwhelming when you’re away from your family and you’re facing a lot of criticism. You’re forced to evaluate yourself as a dancer. But you have to let all of that go out the window so you can grow.

Ebony Williams

Former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer

At Boston Ballet School, Peter Pawlyshyn reminded me that I could be a smart dancer. It was my first summer intensive when I was 12. I remember the simplest thing: I was doing rond de jambes at the barre and my foot started to cramp, and instead of stopping and making a big deal about it, I just relaxed my metatarsal a bit and started to move my foot along the floor, using all the muscles that I should be using but without pointing my foot too hard. He noticed and pointed it out and let me know that’s the way I should do it. He  opened my eyes to the fact that there are other ways of working—being smart about it.

He also taught us partnering class. I’m a complete control freak, and I had a habit of tensing up. I remember him telling me that I had to lift up my center and at the same time be free so I could be mobile. I learned how to relax a bit and just move in the moment. I had to pay attention to dancing with others; I wasn’t on my own. I have to remind myself of that all the time even now, because I am still such a control freak. As a taller girl, I don’t always get to be partnered because I have a hard time finding a guy who’s big enough. But whenever I do, I remind myself that I have to trust him.

Being introduced to partnering work and modern dance that summer made me realize that dance was more than just ballet technique. You have to challenge yourself at intensives to be more open to the things you may not necessarily like. Go in and try to enjoy it and learn as much as you can.

Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Pointe.

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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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