College Before Career?

Traditionally, ballet dancers bypassed college to maximize their dancing years. But for today’s generation, earning a degree before auditioning for the corps has become a smart move. The right undergraduate program can be an opportunity to grow intellec­­t­ually, polish up technique and work with major choreographers. Even more importantly, it can offer experiences that will help you mature as an artist. Sure, there are trade-offs to sacrificing four years of prime performing time. But for some dancers, college can be just what they need to make the leap from student to professional.

 

 

Peng-Yu Chen
Age: 28
College: SUNY Purchase
Company: Atlanta Ballet


Why College: Coming from Taiwan, it was the most direct way for me to get a visa to the U.S. Also, college is expected from most Asian families—mine might have had heart attacks if I told them I was going all the way to the other side of the world to find a job right after high school.

Why SUNY Purchase: I saw the student company perform in Hong Kong and knew it was where I wanted to go—it was the only place I applied.

Best Part: In college, you learn different styles much faster. I was exposed to so many choreographers. I danced works by Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Doug Varone, Mark Morris, Jacqulyn Buglisi and Lin Hwai-Min (of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre). 

Hardest Part: I didn’t speak English very well at first, so academics were difficult, but the professors helped me. I didn’t party or have a regular college life. I had to work really hard, but that’s what I was there for. Purchase prepared me for what I’m doing today—and now I get to enjoy life.

Extra Opportunities: In addition to getting a BFA in dance, I?also got an arts management certificate, which will one day be useful when I finish dancing.

Advice: Before I started at Purchase, I didn’t think I could get into a ballet company. Although I had a strong ballet base, I?had never put on a pair of pointe shoes or done any partnering. Remember that a lot can happen in four years.

 

Michelle Mahowald
Age: 25
College: Indiana University
Company: Ballet Arizona

Why College: I wasn’t ready to join a company—I needed more training and fine-tuning.

Why Indiana: The program functions exactly like a company: After academics in the morning you have company class at 11 am, and rehearse until 6 pm.

Best Part: The teachers really made an investment in me. They polished me up, cleaned my technique and looked at the details, especially my weak points.

Favorite Subjects: Piano, which is mandatory at IU and so important for dancers. Half of our job is music! English literature, especially Shakespeare, was another favorite.

How College Helped: I learned what I wanted out of a professional life, so I felt more mature when it came time to select a com­pany. Because we were able to perform a diverse repertoire at IU, I knew that I enjoyed classical work the most and wanted to join a company that was mostly classical but occasionally performed neoclassical or contemporary repertoire as well.

Age Concerns: I didn’t feel age was such an issue because the IU program is designed to be completed in three years. I was more concerned that my technical experience surpassed my performance experience. When I got into Ballet Arizona I was still green.

 

Advice: Try to think beyond a career in dance and find a program where you can earn a double major. As we all know, a dancer’s career can be short-lived and somewhat unpredictable.


Annie Breneman
Age: 30
College: University of Utah
Company: Ballet West


Why College: I auditioned for companies all over the U.S. during my senior year of high school but didn’t get any job offers.

Why University of Utah: I?was hoping to join a company, so I?liked that they have strong connection to Ballet West.

Age Concerns: After my second year I became an apprentice at Ballet West, which let me dance and work on my degree at the same time, so I wasn’t so concerned about age.

Hardest Part: Dancing while being in school made the days rough and long. I was always two minutes late to company class, which was stressful. It was good, though, for me to have a focus outside of the ballet world. Education gives you new perspectives and more depth as a person and a dancer.

Favorite Subject: Kinesiology. Seeing how the muscles pull the joints to create the movement we do every day was fascinating to me.

 

Extra Opportunities: I took the requirements to go to physical therapy school. I would love to work with dancers some day. I’ve never missed a show because of an injury—I like to think that I’m both a lucky and smart dancer.

Advice: Keep auditioning while you’re in college. You want to keep your audition edge so that nerves don’t get start to get in the way. Unfortunately, in the dance world, jobs are rare. If you’re offered one, jump at the chance, because you can continue your education almost anywhere.

 

 

David Neal
Age: 25
College: New York University
Company: Richmond Ballet

Why College: Coming from Casper, Wyoming, where there are six other guys in the whole state pursuing dance as a career, I was not ready to hit the professional scene. I also love academics and didn’t want to give that up.

Why NYU: I knew I wanted to dance but wasn’t sure whether modern or ballet was the right fit, so I liked that NYU wasn’t geared toward one genre. Also, they have an impressive ballet faculty, including former American Ballet Theatre and Houston Ballet dancers.

Best Part of College:  I was able to do work by Dwight Rhoden, Bill Young and Merce Cunningham. Merce even came to watch us—that was pretty awesome and one heck of an opportunity. I also had access to the grad students, many of whom had already had professional careers.

Favorite Classes: Dance history. It helped me understand the full-lengths, and the distinction between Classical and Romantic ballets. Women were more ethereal in Romantic ballet. Knowing that shifts my approach to partnering: I see myself catching a woman as she tries to fly away rather than lifting her. I also enjoyed taking classes in eclectic subjects like the History of Western Judaism.

How It Helped: Before college, dance was just about the thrill of athleticism. It has much more meaning for me now. It’s almost a spiritual experience, and that’s what I try to share onstage.

Advice: College helps you figure out what kind of dancer you want to be. I went in thinking I would end up in ballet, but first I wanted to see what else was out there. I found my place within the dance world. If I had gone straight to an apprenticeship, I wouldn’t have had that.

 

 

Nancy Wozny writes about the arts from Houston, TX.

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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.

"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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