Your Best Body: Beyond the Barre

Beyond The Barre


Strategic cross-training can transform your performance onstage.


By Kathleen McGuire


Dancers work tirelessly to improve their technique, spending hours at the barre to become better performers onstage. However, the silver bullet to better performances may actually be at the gym. By now, dancers know they should cross-train. But most approach it all too hap­hazardly. What you do—or don’t do—in the gym can transform how you dance onstage. If you’re avoiding weight training or just aim­lessly hopping on the elliptical, you’re missing out. Instead of working out just to burn extra calories, focusing on a strategic routine can actually help you become a stronger, more nuanced dancer.

Pick Up a Dumbbell


Too many dancers make the mistake of avoiding weight training, thinking it’s something dancers just shouldn’t do. Yet there are many practical benefits to lifting free weights. “Dancers need strength and power (the speed-related aspect of strength) to handle the high demands of today’s choreography,” says Nadia Sefcovic, physical therapist at New York City’s Westside Dance Physical Therapy. Working with free weights can improve both.


Strength and power will give you more control onstage to shade movement in the way you want. It will let you dance with greater attack, smoother transitions and more secure balances. “Gravity is the opponent that dancers are fighting every day—and gravity always wins,” says Houston Ballet’s certified athletic trainer Emery Hill. “You have to work as hard as you can to even out the battle.”
But what about bulky muscles? “Honestly, it takes several hours in the gym every week
lifting heavy weights to build big muscles,” says Sefcovic. Performing more repetitions with lighter weights will help you gain strength without bulking up. That’s because you’ll be working the slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are naturally smaller and don’t have the ability to grow as large as fast-twitch muscle fibers (which kick in when you’re lifting heavier weights).


“Weights are just a means of resistance,” says Erica Coffey, physical therapist for the dancers of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. “If you’re doing Pilates and using the reformer, the Cadillac or the chair, you’re getting resistance. There just isn’t a number attached to it, because we are talking about a spring as opposed to a weight.”


Truth be told, toning up can help you slim down. “Weight training helps to boost metabolism,” Sefcovic adds. When you increase muscle mass, your body burns more calories even when you’re just resting.      

Turn In For Better Turnout

Make sure you leave your turnout in the studio. “It’s counterintuitive, but you have to work the opposite motion of what you are trying to gain in order to have some balance,” says Hill. “If you keep working the same motion, eventually it’s going to stop improving.” Focusing solely on cross-training exercises that allow you to work in turnout can be particularly detrimental—and even cause injury. Sefcovic often puts dancers on a bike or the elliptical to ensure they remain in parallel. 


The whole point of cross-training is to work the muscles you don’t use when dancing. “Dancers can develop their strength, flexibility, power and endurance while giving some of those primary muscles they use day in and day out much needed recovery time,” says Coffey. “Muscle recovery is the equivalent of making sure you get enough sleep. Every part of your body needs some downtime.”

Smarter Cardio

Even though you go through all of the same movements, class does not fully prepare your body for the demands of performing a ballet. “Research shows that the level of aerobic workout that happens in a ballet class is pretty minimal,” says Coffey. Yet classical and contemporary choreography usually requires a great deal of stamina supported by a strong cardiovascular system. Build that endurance with 30 to 40 minutes of cardio a few times a week.


Cardio is also helpful for maintaining a lean physique. However, trainers disagree whether moderately paced cardio or interval training (where you push yourself to the limit for a short time then cool down, and repeat) is more effective at burning fat. “It’s a difference in philosophy,” explains Hill. “Some trainers believe that in order to tap into fat-burning systems you have to work at a lower intensity for a longer period of time. But others say that if you burn a thousand calories, a certain percentage of those are going to be fat calories, so why go slow when you’re just trying to burn total calories?”


For Hill, the best option is a combination of both: 20 minutes of interval training followed by 20 minutes at a lower intensity. Not only will this strategy burn a lot of total calories and get you closer to your fat-burning mode, it will also prepare you for the demands of ballet choreography, which can ask for bursts of energy as well as long stretches of simply moving—or holding still—onstage.

Kathleen McGuire writes about dance from Pittsburgh, PA.



Loosen Up

Feeling stiff? Make sure you’re getting enough “good fats.” A recent study at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that omega-3 fatty acids can decrease inflammation and joint stiffness. Heidi Skolnik, nutrition consultant for the School of American Ballet, recommends eating fish two to three times a week to get healthy amounts of omega-3 in your diet. Salmon, herring and mackerel are your best bets. But if you don’t like fish, don’t fret! Flaxseeds, soybeans, walnuts and seaweed are all smart alternatives.



D.I.Y. Energy Bars

Energy bars are a great snack to stash in your dance bag. Unfortunately, most of the brands at the supermarket are loaded with sugar, saturated fat and preservatives. Make your own version at home using your favorite ingredients in just a few easy steps. Try this recipe from Bobbie Marchand, a freelance dancer in New York City.

1 cup chopped nuts (almonds, pistachios, cashews, pecans or walnuts)
3/4 cup seeds (pumpkin, sunflower or flax)
1/2 cup dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, cherries, apricots or figs)
3/4 cup natural peanut butter or almond butter
1/4 cup honey

Mix nuts, seeds and fruit in a medium-sized bowl. Gently heat the peanut butter and honey until combined and smooth. Pour over nut, seed and fruit mixture and mix well. Press into a greased 8x8 pan, allow to cool, then cut into 12 to 16 bars. The bars keep for about two weeks in an air-tight container in the fridge.


Tip: Crunch Better
Does your neck get sore when you do crunches? The next time you hit the mat for ab work, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth. This simple trick forces you to keep the back of your neck straight, which prevents the muscles back there from straining.



5 Fat-Fighting  Foods

Looking to fend off excess fat? Add these five healthy foods to your diet. Each has different benefits that help to keep your body lean.

1. Low-Fat Milk: Studies say three to four daily servings of high-calcium, low-fat dairy can nearly double the amount of fat you burn. Fat cells filled with calcium burn fat faster.


2. Grapefruit: Its vitamin C dilutes fat cells. Grapefruit also contains pectin, which prevents cells from absorbing fat.


3. Oats: This low–glycemic-index food is digested slowly, keeping blood sugar levels stable and cravings in check. A recent study found that people on a low-GI diet lost twice as much weight as those on a low-fat diet.

4. Eggs: One egg supplies 11 percent of your daily B12, which is said to break down fat cells.

5. Beans: Beans’ soluble fiber helps fend off blood sugar spikes that cause cravings. They are also packed with insoluble fiber, which keeps you fuller longer, and some experts say that it may also prevent the absorption of dietary fat. 

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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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