Dancing with Danger

By phone from Europe, where she now performs with a major ballet company, a 24-year-old dancer we’ll call “Claire” recalls the moment she realized cocaine would ruin her life if she kept doing it. She was 19 and training at a renowned ballet academy in New York City. “I’d been living on my own for four years and had met some interesting characters. I knew a dealer who would deliver cocaine to my apartment, like it was pizza.”

Claire had recently checked into a drug-treatment center, prompted by roommates who’d had enough of her mood swings and self-destructive behavior. It had been three years since she’d first experimented with the drug. Her habit began the way many addictions do: Friends were trying cocaine for fun, and she joined in. “We saw professional dancers doing it and we wanted to be cool like they were.”

But she was only able to get through a couple of days of rehab. Back home, feeling defeated, she called in a rush order. The dealer arrived in 20 minutes, and Claire started snorting right away. Something wasn’t right. “Usually, when you use cocaine, you don’t get tired,” Claire explains, “but I was so messed up I couldn’t walk.” She fell asleep—and awoke to the sound of one of her roommates screaming. “My nose was gushing blood. My sinus had basically collapsed on one side.” The cocaine Claire’s dealer brought had been cut with dry bleach cleaner, possibly Ajax.“That was the turning point,” she says. “It wasn’t an overdose, technically, but it was a realization for me.”

Cocaine has a long history in the ballet world that started in the drug’s heyday in the 1980s. Most famously, Gelsey Kirkland wrote about her addiction in her memoir Dancing on My Grave. Many in the dance community got a wake-up call when American Ballet Theatre dancer Patrick Bissell died from an overdose in 1987. Yet cocaine remains a chronic problem, a seemingly easy “solution” to many of the pressures dancers face. Last summer, Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe fought allegations in Danish newspapers that he had used the drug with company dancers. Pointe spoke with dancers, addiction specialists and psychologists to explore why this problem seems to periodically step back into the spotlight.

It’s an urgent question because cocaine abuse comes with serious consequences: Long-term users can experience heart and respiratory problems, headaches, irritability, even paranoid psychosis. And at upwards of $100 per gram, it can quickly drain a bank account.

Despite these risks, ballet’s high-pressure environment can make the drug’s effects—temporary feelings of euphoria, increased alertness and energy, a stifled appetite—seem appealing. A dancer’s job demands sustained focus at levels far beyond the 9-to-5 norm. The job also lends itself to waves of emotion: The rush of a performance may be followed by a crash.

Ballet dancers begin their careers in an addiction-friendly age range as well. “About 70 to 80 percent of people who have a serious problem start using cocaine in their teenage years, definitely a vulnerable time,” says Dr. Andrew Saxon, who directs the Addiction Psychiatry Residency Program at the University of Washington and has researched cocaine use for 26 years. Compounding matters, many dancers leave home at an early age to train or join a company, and have little contact with people outside of the dance world. Claire, for example, lived unsupervised in New York while she trained. Few adults were paying attention to anything other than her technique. “I was throwing parties at 17 that people still ask me about.”

At midsized ballet companies like the one with which “David,” 21, performs, members get few if any performances off. A run of The Nutcracker might require an entire month in the theater. The resulting stress can drive some dancers to see cocaine as an escape, despite its detrimental consequnces, says Dr. Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist in private practice who is also New York City Ballet’s wellness consultant. The harder a dancer works and the heavier his workload, the easier it is to justify partying hard. “There’s less guilt,” says David. “If you’re doing fine at work, you might feel you can burn the candle at both ends.”

Losing weight as a result of cocaine use can be a side effect. It can also be the point. Claire didn’t develop her habit trying to stay thin and, initially, she never got high during work hours. But she became close with a dancer who used cocaine as an appetite suppressant. They began getting high together to replace meals. “I saw muscles I’d never seen before and started to get obsessive about it,” Claire remembers. “Everyone, my whole life, had told me I needed to lose weight. I got a very positive response from all of my teachers.” Within a year, cocaine became a staple of Claire’s “diet,” as she calls it. “I’d do a couple of lines every few hours, all day, and at night I smoked weed and drank to come down.”

Many dancers interviewed said if drug use isn’t directly affecting classes, rehearsals or performances, directors tend to turn a blind eye. Often, however, the artistic staff doesn’t ever see any symptoms. Dancers are trained to conceal flaws and problems, and the field attracts people who have high standards and are self-critical. These same qualities that help them succeed in ballet can be used to keep problems like drug abuse a secret.

The danger escalates when an after-show party habit leads to getting high more frequently and needing more of the drug to experience the same effects. Many dancers feel trapped, too scared or embarrassed to seek help. Claire’s parents still don’t know that she ever had a problem. It’s possible to find treatment and support, however. There are even resources that addicts can contact anonymously. (See the sidebar below.)

Not everyone who tries the drug will get hooked. But “the people who are genetically primed for addiction can’t get over that sense of how good it makes them feel,” says Saxon. “They want to experience it again and again, and will keep using even after the body and brain develop a tolerance to its effects.” Saxon identifies two main risk factors for addiction. The first is genetic predisposition: Some people’s genes have multiple mutations which, when combined, increase the likelihood that the first line they snort won’t be their last. The second factor is circumstantial, “meaning your environment, your day-to-day life and the things that happen to you,” Saxon explains. For addicts, everything from a drug’s alleged benefits to working in an exceptionally stressful environment can be used to justify their habit.

Hamilton says that the ballet world has come a long way toward embracing all-around dancer wellness, but she would like to see it go further. Abuse of cocaine and other hard drugs, as well as eating disorders, raise red flags that the industry should not ignore. “The bigger issue is, how do we help dancers deal with stress?” she asks. Artists, administrators, choreographers and teachers “should all be on the same page. We may inadvertently give dancers mixed messages: ‘We’ll provide this wellness workshop but we won’t give you an easier day before an opening-night performance.’ We’re neglecting to give any TLC.”

Claire—like half of all addicts in the rehabilitation program that Saxon directs—beat her cocaine habit. Another 30 percent gain some control but don’t stop using the drug. The rest, says Saxon, become mentally and/or physically disabled, or even die as a result of their drug abuse.

“I had to find my love for dance again after quitting cocaine,” Claire says. “It can give you energy like nothing else except for your own motivation. I had to go back to when I first saw Swan Lake. I had to make myself love myself and my dancing.”


Where To Find Help

Cocaine Anonymous

Ca.org
Take a self-test for cocaine addiction and find local meetings.
800-347-8998

Cocaine Helpline
Cocainehelp.com
866-535-7050
Connect with a counselor 24/7 for free help with your own addiction and to get referrals for local rehab centers, or to learn about the warning signs in others.

National Cocaine Hotline

800-COCAINE (262-2463)
Connect with a trained professional 24/7 for free information, help with crisis intervention and referrals for local rehab centers.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Findtreatment.samhsa.gov
Search for a list of local treatment programs based on your needs.

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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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