Ask Amy: Snap, Crackle, Pop!


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Click here to send it to Suzanne Farrell Ballet dancer Amy Brandt.

 

When I flex and point my foot, I feel a clicking or shifting sensation in my metatarsals and Achilles. It’s not painful, just uncomfortable. Should I be concerned? —Anne
“Clicks and snaps are extremely common, especially in dancers,” says Dr. William Hamilton, a New York City orthopedic surgeon who specializes in dance medicine. Painless clicks are usually nothing to worry about, he says, while painful ones are a signal that something’s wrong. According to Cynthia McGee Laportilla, Miami City Ballet’s senior physical therapist and dance medicine department director, there could be several reasons for the clicking. Your ankle joint’s ligaments work together with the joint capsule to help hold your foot and ankle bones in place. When ligaments become overstretched, joints can become unstable. Inflamed tendons shifting over bones or other tendons could be another cause, as well as misaligned joints and muscular imbalances or weaknesses.

Even though you aren’t in pain, avoid the temptation to re-create the shifting sensations when you’re not dancing, since it may aggravate your foot. “Then it might start to hurt,” says Hamilton. “Try not to pop it and see if it quiets down—Mother Nature is a great healer if you let her.” Laportilla agrees. “Sometimes problems that start out being just uncomfortable can turn into painful injuries.” Make a mental note about which movements cause your foot to click during class—you may want to limit them so as not to provoke your symptoms. Ask a teacher to watch your technique carefully to pinpoint what might be aggravating your foot. If it still bothers you, get it checked out by a foot and ankle specialist.

 

The dancers at my school are phenomenal, but instead of feeling inspired I just feel jealous. It’s hurting my dancing, and I hate feeling this way. Help! —Rachel

We’ve all been there—it’s easy to feel jealous of others, especially since ballet is so competitive. But it can chip away at your self-esteem and feed immature behavior. I remember growing very jealous of one of my classmates. She had extensions for days and amazing feet, won full scholarships to all the major summer programs—and was two years younger than me, to boot. When the local paper did a full-page story on her, I shut myself up in my bedroom and burst into tears.

There’s an old saying that’s always helped me in this situation: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Make an effort to socialize with your classmates to get to know them as people, as opposed to rivals. Once you know someone personally, it’s easier to gain perspective and grow more supportive of each other. (Besides, I bet your colleagues admire qualities in your dancing, too.) When I started offering my classmate rides home after ballet, we gradually opened up to each other. I learned she was not “perfect,” but was struggling with a lot of insecurities. My jealousy softened. I stopped seeing her as a threat (and myself as chopped liver) and gained a wonderful new friend.

While it’s probably not your gut reaction to want to learn from your competitors, there are advantages to being surrounded by phenomenal dancers. Observe—or simply ask—how they approach steps you’re having trouble with. Take note of their artistic nuances. Rather than feeling defeated in the presence of talented dancers, see this as an opportunity to push yourself to a higher level.

Next year, I’ll be competing at Youth America Grand Prix for the first time. What should I expect? Any advice for a new competitor? —Adalhi
I didn’t attend competitions growing up, so I spoke with Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member (and YAGP veteran) Elle Macy. Her advice? Try not to over-rehearse. “I prepared for a year in advance once,” she says, a process which resulted in endless nitpicking, overanalyzing and robotic dancing. “Three to four months should be enough time to prepare your variation.”

More importantly, don’t make competitions all about winning. Instead, try to see them as opportunities for personal growth—an attitude Macy adopted as she gained more experience. “Competing became another way for me to get onstage and gain exposure,” she says. Besides, not winning (or even placing) doesn’t mean you’ll never make it as a professional dancer. “There were times I felt defeated, but I still made it to this point,” says Macy.

Competitions also bring wonderful scholarship opportunities to further your training at major dance schools. But even if you leave empty-handed, you will have had the chance to network with directors, teachers and other dancers—people you may work with someday as a professional.

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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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