Ask Amy: Oct/Nov 2009

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It seems like every other week I have a new injury: hip issues, Achilles tendonitis, back problems. I’m afraid this will stunt my career— it’s hard to improve when I’m always injured. What can I do? —Frustrated

Injuries are exasperating, but nonetheless a part of our profession. Make sure you’re taking time to heal properly. It’s tempting to try to push through when you should be resting. I developed a rare hip injury early in my career. I could barely lift my leg, but I was so anxious about casting that I did not have it properly evaluated for months. Well, I didn’t get the part, and I permanently damaged my hip. I also developed knee and ankle problems as a result of compensating.

Use the time off as an opportunity to learn about your body’s weaknesses, quirks and asymmetries. I found that my right hip socket cocks slightly inward, so certain muscles are weaker. Now I regularly stretch and strengthen that side to prevent further strains.

Once your body is well enough to get back to class, don’t be embarrassed if you need to modify combinations for a while. You’ll learn to work correctly, which will benefit your dancing in the end.

I’m never satisfied with my pointe shoes. I’ve tried several and they always make my feet look more turned in than they actually are! What should I do? —Janice, California

Pointe shoes can sometimes magnify imperfections. In all honesty, maintaining turnout is more difficult once you’ve got the boots on. Make sure you’re taking a sincere look at your technique and not just blaming your shoes.

That said, finding the perfect pair takes a while. I’ve changed my shoes many times during my career. Find a professional fitter to measure your feet and recommend shoes based on your foot type. “Look at the box shape of your shoe,” says Mary Carpenter, a New York–based teacher and shoe fitter. “If you have a square foot and you’re wearing a tapered box, it’s going to twist. If you have a narrow, tapered foot and you wear a square box, you’re going to sink in it.”

There are also tricks that can improve the look of your shoe. Some dancers criss-cross their elastics to tighten up excess material, or sew the sides down lower. Consider trying a special-order shoe. They take a while to come in, but you can customize everything to your liking.

My arabesque is stuck at 90 degrees. How can I make it go higher? —Talia, Florida

I’m so glad you asked—I used to have the same problem! Thankfully, my arabesque significantly improved over time. It’s still not great—94 degrees on a warm day—but at least it’s acceptable.

I suspect you either have an inflexible back or you’re holding your arabesque improperly. Or both, as was my case. Luckily, a teacher taught me a great exercise that can help you increase flexibility and find proper placement.

You’ll need two portable barres and a mirror. Set the barres parallel to the mirror, one about four feet behind the other. Take an arabesque, placing your foot on the back barre and your hands on the front barre. Observe your position. Are your shoulders down and square, ribs aligned, hips pulled up, arabesque leg turned out and behind you? (Use a lower barre if you can’t maintain the correct position.) Take three slow, deep pliés, keeping your upper back lifted. After the third plié, lift your back leg off the barre (without compromising your shoulders), hold, and lower the leg back down. Repeat, for a total of four times on each side. Stretch your back and hips in the opposite direction as soon as you’re finished. My flexibility, position and strength improved, and hopefully yours will, too.

Talking to Amy: Houston Ballet Principal Barbara Bears

I’ve had four foot surgeries, and have unfortunately experienced trickle-down injuries when coming back. You tend to compensate when you’re not 100 percent, so other things flare up. As dancers, we have to listen to our bodies. If something’s bothering you, talk to your instructor and then have it looked at by a dance medicine specialist. If you have several serious injuries, look at how you’re working. Are you not wearing the proper shoes, or not warming up well enough before class? Do your own little bit of investigating.

 

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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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