Jaime Lynn Witts as Belle in Stephen Mills' Belle REDUX/A Tale of Beauty & The Beast. Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Making It Against the Odds: How Ballet Austin's Jaime Lynn Witts Went From Underdog to Leading Lady

Growing up, I was always the one who didn't have the right body or the right feet or even just the right look. I never had that encouragement in the studio that things were going to work out for me, but I was always determined.

I didn't train at a big ballet academy, but I do think I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, with parents who always supported me. I started in dance with creative movement classes in my hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. I had some really wonderful Russian and Ukrainian ballet teachers from a young age, but it was frustrating because I didn't have the things they were looking for. You grow up seeing those pictures and videos of classical ballerinas and you know what it's supposed to look like. To not have the right body or feet when you're younger is devastating.


My whole life, my teachers would say things like "Well, you have a good jump." And I would think, Okay, that's my thing, but I don't have the right proportions or I'm not turned out enough. There were parts that I was passed over for, and when my class went on pointe at age 11, I didn't get to start pointe with them. I knew I wanted to be a ballerina, but I was afraid I was never going to make it if I was already behind my peers.

Witts practicing outside of the studioCourtesy Witts

I took every pointe class that year on flat, and I did all of the exercises the doctor gave me to strengthen my ankles and feet—relevés, scrunch the towel, pick up the pencil, using the TheraBand. I put all of that anger and frustration into working harder. I was a major tomboy, and I didn't have many girlfriends growing up, particularly in the dance world. I think it was a blessing in disguise because it was easier to focus on myself rather than what was happening around me. In my career now, the fact that I can push through and endure has been important because those setbacks are just amplified when it's your job.

While I didn't get into every summer program I auditioned for, I attended Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet when I was 12 or 13, and I also spent a summer with Boston Ballet when I was 15. The following spring, when I was 16, I broke my foot while dancing at the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley. I wound up in a hard cast to my knee for about eight weeks, and so I spent that summer practicing my rehabilitation exercises and reading all kinds of ballet books.

After I graduated from high school, I attended my last summer intensive with Ballet Austin. But I was very pragmatic, thanks to my mom. From the age of 9, I had been told by experts in the field that ballet was never going to happen for me, so now, as a mother myself, I really appreciate that my mom wanted me to always have a backup. I took AP classes in school, I took the SAT and ACT and applied to colleges, eventually deferring from the University of Tampa for Ballet Austin.

Witts as Alice in Septime Webre's "ALICE (in wonderland)"Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

Even going to Ballet Austin's summer intensive, I wasn't at the highest level. There was a teacher here, Truman Finney, who had danced under Balanchine at New York City Ballet, was John Neumeier's muse and taught at Hartford Ballet, and he saw something in me. But he saw me as a teacher. After the summer, I was invited by him, Michelle Martin and Stephen Mills to stay on as a trainee, and during my first conference with Truman, he said, "What are you going to do when you don't get a job?" I was always going to be too heavy and not quite tall enough and too muscular to dance. But he thought I could teach because I understood ballet. I had never thought of teaching before, and it was a shock to me then. But I feel really grateful to Truman for getting me into teaching because it has been one of the most fulfilling things for me.

But even when I started teaching about halfway through my apprentice year, I still had that mentality of "I'm going to dance because this is what I want to do, and I don't care what you say." I never really had that moment where I knew I was going to make it in the company, but I kept focusing on things I could do, like jumps and port de bras. Working with Gina Patterson on a contemporary piece really helped me to see my potential, too. If you can have the most beautiful, expressive upper body, that can make up for not being born with the best feet or perfect turnout. You tell a story with your hands, the tilt of your head, the way you turn your shoulders. Finding those little things that you're good at gives you something to keep working on and find more potential.

I spent two years as a trainee and one as an apprentice before joining the company. Since then, I've gotten to dance roles that I dreamed of, like Ophelia in Hamlet, and even roles like Juliet that I never thought I would get to dance. And I've gotten to do it all with people who have become family to me.

We put so much pressure on ourselves individually, but there are so many other elements involved in ballet that are outside of your control. When you're in such an intense art form, it can feel like "I'm not good enough for some reason." But I hope young dancers, and even I, can take a step back, take a deep breath, and realize they've accomplished a lot.

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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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