Seizing Her Moment


Lindsi Dec steps out from the “Rubies” corps, lowering her arms slowly, a flash in her eyes. And then she bursts into action, her 5' 9" worth of angular beauty unfurling into head-high extensions. Darting and slinking through Balanchine’s hip-jutting steps, the Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist is having the time of her life. And so is the audience.

Dec’s connection to this solo goes back a long way. She saw it for the first time as a teenager attending a Miami City Ballet performance at the Kennedy Center and promptly decided that ballet was what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. It’s no surprise that Dec responded immediately to the role. The steps fit her long, leggy body and playful personality. If there’s one part that captures Dec’s energy, optimism and humor, says PNB artistic director Peter Boal, it’s the solo girl in “Rubies” from Balanchine’s Jewels.

When Boal came to PNB in 2005, he saw Dec as someone who could excel in tall-girl roles. Now 29, this neoclassical dancer has created a much richer onstage identity. The same enthusiasm that Boal loves in her “Rubies” performances has helped Dec prove she is also a modern dancer, a contemporary dancer, a lyrical dancer and—something that surprised even Dec herself when it happened this past June—a Romantic classical ballerina.

Dec started out learning everything from pompom to ballet at the Linda Natoli Studio of Dance in Clinton, Maryland. No one in her family danced—not her mother, her father, her older brother or her many aunts. But her mother signed her up for classes when Dec was 3. Why? “My mom told me, ‘Well, you were very introverted.’ ” Dec laughs. “What?! You can’t even stop me from talking!”

Dec’s family moved around Maryland and Virginia quite a bit, but dance class and competitions continued in spite of long commutes to one dance studio or another. In eighth grade, Dec dropped sports to focus on ballet. She then attended Houston Ballet’s summer intensive and got a glimpse of what a professional career would require. Her progress stopped short, however, when her high school refused to waive its after-school athletic requirements.

It cost her a year of ballet study before she found her way back to the studio. When she returned, she felt she’d fallen behind the other students. “I still feel that way,” she confesses. However, she pushed herself to catch up, and in the process developed a work ethic that has led to one breakthrough after another. 

Dec was 15 when seeing “Rubies” cemented her desire for a professional career. She enrolled in The Washington School of Ballet, a longtime dream of hers. When she suddenly sprouted to 5' 9" in her junior year, she worried whether ballet was still an option. A friend recommended that she study at Pacific Northwest Ballet, which was known for hiring tall dancers.

Dec followed through, and was accepted to their summer program. Despite certain technical weaknesses like modest turnout, Dec was offered a spot in PNB’s professional division when she graduated from high school. She had also won a scholarship to New York University, but decided to defer and see how her efforts in the professional division went. In 2001, PNB hired her as an apprentice; the next year she made it into the corps. PNB’s then co-artistic director Francia Russell recommended Dec spend time in front of a mirror looking for lines that would compensate for her lack of turnout. Dec still follows that  advice to this day—it’s one of the secrets of her success.

Dec stayed in the corps for seven years. In 2007, Boal told her, “To gain ground in this company, you need to excel at more lyrical movement. That softer, more adagio side would open doors for you.” Dec took Boal’s challenge. She actually had already been working on pas de deux after hours with another PNB dancer, Karel Cruz, a 6' 4" Cuban with bravura technique. It paid off. In 2008, PNB ballet master Paul Gibson cast the pair in a pas de deux in his Sense of Doubt—an adagio section. Gibson had long admired Dec’s ability to transform herself for a role, but he felt this time she went somewhere new emotionally. Boal agreed, noting that Dec and Cruz made the dancers’ interaction itself be a presence onstage. “He’s a perfect partner for her,” Boal thought.

Perfect partners onstage—and off. Dec and Cruz got married in 2009, the same year she was promoted to soloist. That fall, their luminous pas de deux in Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort electrified Seattle audiences. Yet the couple did not rely on their personal chemistry to create a dramatic performance. They watched a Nederlands Dans Theater video of the piece every night during rehearsals, says Dec, trying to figure out how to achieve a “liquid movement quality.” They nailed it.

Dec has blossomed with married life. “I couldn’t think of anything better for us,” she says. “We’re so supportive of each other.” While they enjoy salsa dancing, neither has consuming hobbies. They like hanging out with each other, with their pound kitties—Miso and Luna—and with their friends. It’s easy to see why. Even interviewing Dec is fun. She sees the humor in life and laughs readily.

Her positive personality follows her into the studio. “When you know you’re rehearsing Lindsi,” says Gibson, “you know it’s going to be a great rehearsal.” Choreographer and fellow PNB dancer Kiyon Gaines, who counts her as a close friend as well as a muse, agrees, noting that he feeds off her energy and eagerness. Gaines also praises Dec’s professionalism and her support of other company members. “She is a source of encouragement,” he says. “Everyone in the company has benefited from Lindsi’s kindness.”

Since her Petite Mort breakthrough, Dec has been cast often and widely. For the company’s new restaging of Giselle last June, acknowledging Dec’s evolution as a dancer, Boal cast her as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Dec thought at the time. None of her many fans would have doubted her dramatic abilities, but Giselle’s floating movement and soft arms presented a big change from Dec’s other repertoire.

Then in March, Dec tore a muscle in her right leg. She faced nine weeks of recovery, with Giselle looming at the other end. Dec’s injury altered her approach to her extracurricular workouts. For the past five years, she had been cross-training, doing abs, cardio on the elliptical and weights with good results. Post-injury, however, Pilates, yoga and not pushing became the new rule. Boal noticed that Dec came back to the studio with a different posture and a greater fluidity to her port de bras. In fact, he interrupted a run-through of Giselle to tell her how great her arms looked. “After I got injured, something clicked in my head about placement,” says Dec. In Giselle, she showed a new lift to her carriage, a quietness. Contrary to even her own expectations, this powerhouse had succeeded in transforming herself once again.

Happily, Dec’s natural spice and sparkle survived the transformation. “You worry when someone starts to analyze little pieces that they’ll become too restricted and lose their expression,” says Boal. “What’s so great about Lindsi is that freedom. And she hasn’t lost it.”

Rosie Gaynor is a Seattle dance writer.

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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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