ADrian Durham in CPYB's production of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy CPYB.

Let's Hear It for the Boys: Why More Schools Are Offering Men's Training Programs

As a teenager, Adrian Durham studied at his local ballet school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. "I was one of three or four guys training there, and there were no male teachers," says Durham. "Most of my partnering experience came from rehearsals for performances." But after he began training with the male scholarship program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in 2014, he experienced a sea change. "It challenged me mentally, physically and emotionally, because it's such an intense program," he says. Now 20, he is preparing for a professional career with an integrated set of tools: ballet technique, physical strength and partnering skills.

Men's ballet technique classes have been available for decades, especially at summer intensives and urban ballet schools. Yet programs designed specifically for male dancers, often offering full scholarships, have been rarer—until now, that is. Training that allows boys to separately explore their skills, above and beyond a supplement of double tours en l'air and pirouettes à la seconde at the conclusion of a mixed class, can literally give young men a leg up as they aspire towards a dance career.



Why the Need?

To work professionally, young men have to demonstrate a full range of technical skills, especially in jumping and turning and through a firm grasp of styles and partnering. "Today, boys are expected to be much more flexible and physically fit than they were 20 years ago," says Peter Stark, who joined the Boston Ballet School faculty in 2015 to shape a comprehensive men's program, in which 72 percent of students are on scholarship. Simon Ball, who directs the men's program at CPYB, agrees. "You're not exceptional if you can do a double tour from fifth to fifth," he says. "That's the bare minimum."


Simon Ball instructing CPYB student Braden Hart. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy CPYB.


For smaller schools and companies, initiating a men's ballet program also helps to recruit boys and educate communities. Nick Mullikin, the director of the School of Nashville Ballet, saw a shortage of boys in his school, mostly due to the stigma of young men studying ballet. In response, he launched a young men's scholarship program last August that currently serves 40 male students, ages 6 to 18. Boys receive a year of free training; subsequent scholarships are merit-based. "Coed classes sometimes put boys in a ratio of 20 to 1," says Mullikin. "It's great when there are other boys in class; it helps to build a sense of teamwork. It's important for young men to have that kind of support."

In addition, getting proper training during the early teen years is crucial. "At the onset of puberty, which is when girls are going on pointe—that's when it's nice to separate the boys out," says Stark, so that both groups have time to pursue specialized training. In his experience, Ball has seen that boys can succeed in their teens, but acknowledges that the path is generally easier at a younger age to ingrain the focus, discipline and muscle memory.


What's Different?

Men's programs, often led by male teachers with professional experience, offer more specialized training. Even barre exercises often need to be adapted. "I think it's really essential for men to get down into the floor for their preparations and jumps," says Ball, who emphasizes the full value of the plié and the push required to spring off the floor in his classes. He also frequently gives combinations that move side to side to help students feel their backs and coordinate their jumps, rather than move in pieces.

Partnering proficiency doesn't manifest magically, so constant practice through weekly adagio classes is necessary to prepare men to work professionally. Many programs also implement cross-training to develop upper-body strength and stamina. CPYB two-year male scholarship boys go to a gym twice a week to work with a trainer for core and upper-body strength, while Nashville Ballet and Boston Ballet schools work exercises into class. "We do a lot of gym exercises—planks, push-ups and sit-ups, stretching, and running up and down stairs," says Stark. "Some boys are tighter but stronger, and some are super-flexible but not as strong," so a mindful approach to each student is crucial.


Students of Nashville Ballet School. Photo by Karyn Photography, Courtesy Nashville Ballet.


Male Camaraderie

For a student whose only experience is his hometown school, entering into a new arena of competition can be challenging. Yet most find being in a class of other boys a positive, and it helps diminish the myth that ballet is only for girls. "The teachers encourage you to compare yourself to other dancers in a healthy way: If this person can do it, there's no reason you can't do it," says Durham. "Being around a group of guys working toward the same thing gives you confidence and is very motivating."

Another unexpected benefit: The discipline, concentration and focus often expand beyond the walls of the studio. "When the boys get together multiple times a week, you see technical improvement, but we've also seen the changes in their behavior," says Mullikin. "We've heard from parents that their academic performance in school is better."

Ball recalls that as a young dancer, he trained with "a handful of men, none my own age." Now, he says, "I walk into the studio and I continually have to pinch myself because there are 20 to 30 men in the room. I'm so happy with the way things have progressed."


BONUS TIPS

Are You the Only Guy in Your Class?

If you don't have access to a men's program, there are things you can do to progress in your hometown studio:

1. Study videos that show excellent male dancing in performances, classes and rehearsals. "As a kid I had three videos: Baryshnikov's Don Q and Nutcracker, and New York City Ballet's The Magic Flute with Ib Andersen," says Simon Ball, director of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's men's program and a former principal with Houston Ballet. "I watched them over and over again."

2. In your early teens, begin an upper-body strengthening routine, preferably with the help of a professional. Back injuries among young male dancers are common. Core work can begin earlier.

3. Request that your instructor address the differences in men's and women's technique, such as male-specific jumps and turns and adjusting tempos during allégro combinations, in class.

4. Ask your local studio to host a guest male instructor who has a background in men's training.

5. Try to see male dancers in live ballet performances as often as possible. "Anything you can do to see male dancers perform keeps you motivated and gives you something to work towards," says CPYB student Adrian Durham. —JC

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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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