Your Best Body: Hang-Time Help

When it comes to jumping, dancers could learn a thing or two from athletes. While dancers typically practice their jumps by, well, practicing jumps, high jumpers and hurdlers cross-train with exercises called plyometrics. These drills are specifically designed to fine-tune neuromuscular control and build power, speed and agility to help you catch more air time. In a study by the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center, a six-week plyometric training program improved both quadricep and hamstring strength in dancers, and helped them travel farther through space.

To get similar results, work these five plyometric exercises into your routine three days a week. Each offers a different benefit to help you get higher, move faster and stay up longer. “Typically a plyometric program is progressive,” says Jenna Marchitello, a physical therapist from Body Dynamics, Inc., in Falls Church, Virginia. “The focus in the beginning should be more on control of landing and alignment. Later, you can work on the height of the jumps.” She and colleague Sonia Deville Cronmiller, a certified health fitness specialist, advise dancers to wear sneakers and warm up with 10 to 15 minutes of cardio beforehand. Click here to watch Ballet Academy East’s Petra Love demonstrate each exercise. 

Improve Your Power and Stamina: Tuck Jumps

Standing with your feet together, bend your knees and jump as high as you can, tucking your knees up to your chest. Land on both feet and immediately repeat, continuing the jumps for 30 seconds. “Tuck jumps help build the endurance dancers need for petit allégro,” says Alison Deleget, an athletic trainer with Harkness. They also improve lower body strength to help you develop explosive power. Deleget recommends two sets.

Improve Your Landing Control: Hop-Hop-Hold

Beginning in parallel, take two hops forward, traveling about a foot each time. After the second hop, hold in a squat landing position for five seconds. Repeat 5 to 10 times in a row. During the hold, focus on maintaining proper hip, knee and ankle alignment. “The hold at the end helps strengthen your glutes, hamstrings and quads for landing control,” says Deleget. Since most injuries occur during landings, proper alignment is vital.

Improve Your Push-Off Strength: Scissor Jumps
Starting in parallel, jump and split the legs, with one foot moving front and the other back. Land in a lunge with your front knee at a 90-degree angle (making sure it doesn’t veer to the inside) and the back knee also bent at 90 degrees, with weight on the ball of the foot. Then, scissor the legs in the air and land in a lunge on the opposite side. Alternate legs for 30 seconds.

Scissor jumps strengthen the quadriceps, which control the push-off and landing. Focus on articulating a toe-ball-heel roll-through as you land, and stretching your knees and pointing your feet in the air. Keep your core engaged, avoiding any tucking or arching of the pelvis.

Improve Your Air Time: Bounding
For the bounding exercise—which looks like an explosive, jumping jog—jump from one foot to the other as though you were running in place. Jump high into the air to create a long, vertical stride, and hike the front knee up as high as possible. Your arms can move in opposition as you alternate the legs. “At first, do this in place for 20 to 30 seconds,” says Marchitello. “In later weeks, you can progress to moving forward.” Bounding helps with catching the air and sustaining your position in jumps like grands jetés.

Improve Your In-Air Alignment: Parallel Sissonnes
Starting with feet together in parallel, sissonne side to side (holding the arms in second). Alternate legs for a total of five repetitions in each direction.

“Start these in parallel,” says Deleget, “and then progress to a more turned-out position.” Working turned-in helps dancers master proper alignment. “If you can find your alignment in parallel, it will help you find it better in turnout.”

The Secrets to Ashley Bouder’s Jump

Ashley Bouder may be New York City Ballet’s resident jumping bean, but that doesn’t mean she takes her natural ability for granted. You’ll often find her in men’s class at the School of American Ballet, which focuses on jumps and uses slower tempos.

Bouder pays particular attention to her turnout muscles when she takes off. “You store a lot of energy in those muscles, so it’s really important to use them to get in the air,” she says. “They also help in landing and deceleration.” She encourages dancers to take a moment mid-air to consider the landing. “A lot of people just think about jumping really high. But when you think about the landing, it gives you that extra second in the air, and the landing becomes so much smoother that it actually looks like you’ve gone higher or further.”



Potassium—Beyond the Banana

Bananas are one of the most popular snacks in the studio. Dancers know they need the fruit’s potassium to help them avoid cramps. But bananas actually aren’t one of the best sources: There are only 422 milligrams of potassium in a medium banana. To hit the USDA recommended 4700 mg, you’d need to eat more than 11 bananas a day! These 10 foods offer much more per serving.

Dried apricots......................................1511 mg in one cup
Avocado..............................................975 mg in an average avocado
Baked potato with skin.................926 mg in a medium potato
Cooked spinach...............................839 mg in one cup
Medjool dates...............................696 mg in 100 grams
Edamame...............................676 mg in one cup
Yogurt, plain non-fat........ 625 mg in one cup
Raisins...................................616 mg in half a cup
Sweet potato.....................541 mg in a medium potato
Salmon.................................534 mg in a 3 oz filet
Bananas...............................422 mg for a medium banana


Sweet News
Need some extra concentration for that long rehearsal? Try sipping some naturally sweetened lemonade. New research, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that sugar triggers motivational centers in your brain, boosting your levels of self-control and personal investment. This cranks up your focus so you can concentrate on the choreography in front of you. What better excuse for a sweet treat? Just be sure to grab the real stuff—artificial sugar substitutes don’t have the same effect.


Try This: Plank on a Stability Ball
To build core strength, you need to keep your body guessing. Challenge yourself by adding a stability ball to your plank: With your feet on the floor, place your elbows on the ball in front of you, and hold the position like you would a normal plank. To make it even harder, roll the ball forward with your elbows. The farther you move the ball away from your body, the harder it will be to stabilize, and the better the workout you’ll get.

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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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