Ask Amy

I’m going to my first summer intensive and am nervous about the placement class. It seems scary to have my entire three weeks there determined by one class. Any tips?
—Victoria

It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous, but try to relax. Your teachers are trying to place you in the level where you’ll be able to learn the most. Keep in mind that summer programs draw students from all over the country, so you’ll probably have more competition to deal with than at your local studio. At my first intensive, I was placed in the second-highest level even though I was in the top at my studio back home. Although I was disappointed at first, I eventually realized that’s where I belonged. I needed to refine the basics and strengthen my pointework; I would have been overwhelmed in a more challenging class.

 

Prepare for the placement class by arriving in shape. Load up on classes back home before you leave. Make sure your hair and makeup look flawless, wear your most flattering leotard and remember to smile—and breathe! But even if the class doesn’t go well, your summer isn’t doomed: Your teachers will move you up or down if it’s clear you’ve been placed in the wrong level.

I’ve had Achilles tendonitis for about six months, and it won’t get better no matter how much time I take off. Will I have to deal with this injury throughout my dance career?
—Sara

Achilles tendonitis (characterized by a tight, swollen Achilles tendon) is a very common and treatable condition. However, New York–based physical therapist Laura Ossowski, MSPT, says it shouldn’t last more than six weeks without improvement. Since yours has gone on for months, you need to step back and identify the underlying cause.

 

“Don’t just symptom-chase,” says Ossowski, stressing that rest and ice will only take you so far. “You need to look at the bigger picture.” Sometimes Achilles tendonitis stems from structural problems, like an extra ankle bone or bone spur. Dead pointe shoes or too-tight ribbons can also aggravate the Achilles. But faulty technique is the most common culprit. “For example, if you force your turnout from your feet instead of your hips, you torque the ankle joint, which affects the Achilles,” says Ossowski. To alleviate the symptoms long-term, you’ll need to correct your technique.

 

You should seek help from both a doctor (who can evaluate the severity of your tendonitis and prescribe anti-inflammatories) and a physical therapist (who can identify weaknesses, massage tight muscle groups and teach you some strengthening exercises). If possible, schedule a private session or reserve some time after class to work one-on-one with your ballet teacher to help you pinpoint the problem. “Go back to basic technique,” says Ossowski. “How do you plié? How do you relevé?” Take lower-level classes so you can move at a slower pace and concentrate on your placement.

 

You may need to watch for tendonitis flare-ups throughout your dance career, especially during busy rehearsal periods. But understanding what causes your injury and knowing how to correct it will help you recover more efficiently.

It seems as though all professional ballet dancers have hyperextended knees. I don’t, and I feel like I just can’t create the same beautiful lines. Will anyone ever hire me?
—Elisabeth

I know quite a few dancers without hyperextended knees. Just look at Houston Ballet principal Amy Fote. She told me she creates nicer lines with a couple of imagery techniques. “If I envision my legs going three inches beyond their actual length, it makes a difference,” Fote says. She also uses this trick: “Act as if your leg ends at the knee and ‘point’ your knees. It activates certain muscles in your leg to create the straightest line possible.”

 

Katelyn Prominski, a corps member with Pennsylvania Ballet, recommends standing in first position and practicing pulling up your thighs until you feel your quadriceps start to burn. She also does the same exercise on pointe, and keeps it in mind while cross-training. “If I’m doing Pilates or Thera-Band exercises,” she says, “I pull up my thighs like crazy.”

 

Try not to get discouraged. For all its beauty, hyperextension comes with drawbacks: It forces weight back onto the heels and causes postural problems, making it harder for hyperextended dancers to get “on their leg.” In this way, you have an advantage!

 

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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.

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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.

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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