Samantha Hope Galler and Alexander Peters rehearse Jerome Robbins' I'm Old Fashioned. Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

How Miami City Ballet's Samantha Hope Galler Learned to Channel Rita Hayworth for Jerome Robbins' "I'm Old Fashioned"

In 1983, at New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins decided to create a tribute to the great Fred Astaire, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Astaire dazzled audiences on the silver screen, making an unmistakable impact on dance in film. Robbins decided to set his ballet against the backdrop of film projections of Astaire dancing with Rita Hayworth in a scene from the 1942 film You Were Never Lovelier. According to NYCB's website, when Robbins wrote to Astaire letting him know of his intentions, Astaire replied, "I'm honored that you want to do what you suggest." The result was I'm Old Fashioned, a ballet that's full of Astaire's signature elegance, and the glamour and romance of his films. The work transports the audience back to a time of long ball gowns and men in white ties and tails, when love stories were told through dance.


Up until now, only New York City Ballet has performed the piece. But that changes tonight when Miami City Ballet opens their second program of the season, and becomes the first company outside of NYCB to bring the piece into their repertory. Christopher Wheeldon's This Bitter Earth, George Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas De Deux and Alexei Ratmansky's Symphonic Dances round out the program.

"It's all ballroom and waltzing and kind of floating across the floor, and it gives a feeling of gliding. It's very romantic," says Samantha Hope Galler, one of the MCB soloists performing in I'm Old Fashioned. It's also deceptively tricky. The piece incorporates elements of ballroom, swing rhythms and Latin dance, and finds the women in long gowns rather than tutus or leotards. The most challenging part of all is embodying the spirit of the larger-than-life onscreen legends in the film projections, and the ease and effortlessness with which they moved. Balanchine himself once called Fred Astaire "the greatest dancer in the world." Of Hayworth, Galler says, "The hardest thing was when you watch her, everything makes sense, and then when you try to do it, it's a lot harder than they make it look. I think the biggest challenge for me was to embrace the calmness that she has."

Samantha Hope Galler stands with her right foot popped, looking sideways to the right at her image in the mirror at Miami City Ballet's costume shop. She wears a bright yellow strapless gown; her practice clothes are draped over a black chair behind her.

Samantha Hope Galler in a costume fitting for Jerome Robbins I'm Old Fashioned.

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

Of the ballet's three principal couples, Galler learned two of the female roles: the girl in yellow who dances a pas de deux en pointe, and the girl in red who dances what's called the "lazy" pas de deux. "It's been fun to work on two parts because they are quite different. They have similar elegance to them, but the couples are different in levels of maturity," she says. The yellow girl and her partner are the couple that open the ballet, with the daunting task of entering right after the film of Astaire and Hayworth plays. "The dance that she does with her man is a little bit more playful. It's kind of cute and shy," Galler says. As for the girl in red, "She's very comfortable in her skin, and she is super glamorous. She embraces a little bit more of a sexual side," says Galler. "I try to envision myself walking on 5th Avenue—how you feel empowered a little bit, and confident in a different way."

Renan Cerdeiro and Ashley Knox, holding hands, leap lightly onto their right feet, their arms thrown up and their left leg kicked up beside them. He wears a black tuxedo and she wears a strapless black gown. Behind them onstage looms a giant black-and-white projection of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, wearing similar costumes.

​Miami City Ballet's Renan Cerdeiro and Ashley Knox in I'm Old Fashioned

Karolina Kuras, Courtesy MCB.

To help herself get into the mindset of each character, she thought about her own relationship with her fiancée at different stages. "I tell myself, what was it like when I first met my fiancée? And now, what do I feel when we're walking down the street together, that comfort?" she says. "I try to incorporate actual feelings because it makes it more real, for me at least."

The company worked with ballet master and Robbins repetiteur Christine Redpath to capture the nuances of Robbins' choreography, and the way he incorporated particular traits of Astaire and Hayworth's movement as well. Details like the height of the arms, or getting just the right tilt in the head (not too far down or up) helped Galler find her way into the look and style of Rita Hayworth in the film. Musicality is also key. "There are some places you can play with the musicality, but then there are places where you really don't want to be late," she says. "In the red pas de deux there are bigger lifts and you have to be right on the music for that." MCB artistic director Lourdes Lopez, who performed in I'm Old Fashioned during her own days as an NYCB dancer, also brought her expertise to rehearsals.

For Galler, though the piece evokes another time, its sense of romance is still relatable and timeless to audiences today. It also shows another side of the company's dancers, and another facet of their versatility. "I haven't seen anything quite like it," she says of the ballet. "It's really unique."

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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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