Photo by Jim Lafferty

Mia Michaels Opens Up About Her Career, Body Image and Being Queen of the Unicorns

It's a humid afternoon in New York City, and I'm sitting in a crowded restaurant on 29th Street and Seventh Avenue waiting to interview an artist I've admired since I first started dancing—this is a major fan-girl moment for me.

When Mia Michaels arrives, she enters with the kind of confidence and energy that makes people stop and take notice. She greets me with a warm hello and a tight hug. For an artist with a resumé like hers, I'm surprised by how easy she is to be with. "Do you mind if I get a coffee?" she says immediately. She's going to need it—after our interview, she'll rush directly to her cover photo shoot before teaching a master class at Broadway Dance Center this evening. Tomorrow, she'll be walking the New York Fashion Week runway for the Chromat fashion label, and later this week she'll be on a flight to Chicago for another master class, before finally heading to Tahiti for the first vacation she's had in months. "It's been a very intense year for me," she says.


She's talking, in part, about Mia Michaels Live, a new convention she started. "MML is about tapping into yourself and remembering why we dance," she says. "It's meant to be a kind of transformative retreat." At the one- to two-day workshop, dancers ages 9 and up take movement and personal growth classes from Michaels and compete for a chance to be signed to MSA talent agency or a full scholarship to study at Broadway Dance Center.

Photo by Jim Lafferty

Last year Michaels added the title of author to an already impressive list of professional credits that includes three Emmy Awards for her work on "So You Think You Can Dance," choreographing the Broadway musical Finding Neverland and directing/choreographing the 2016 New York Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes. Her memoir, A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys: A Guide to Life for All the Exceptional, Excellent Misfits Out There, is part autobiography, part workbook and part motivational self-help book to encourage people to embrace the "unicorns" they were born to be. A unicorn is, Michaels writes, "an exceptional person who revels in his or her peculiarity, despite the tremendous pressure—from parents, teachers, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, society in general—to be just like everyone else."

Michaels herself has always felt like a bit of a misfit. She grew up with metal braces on her legs. "My hip, leg and feet bones weren't developing at the same rate, making one foot bigger, and my hips turned inward," she writes. "My looks were always considered bizarre. I was taller and thicker than anyone in my class, including the boys. The other kids looked at me like I was an alien."

Michaels says her struggle to step into her own uniqueness rather than conform to societal expectations has been pivotal to her success. As an educator, she's affectionately known to her students as "Mama Mia." "I use the term to let students know that my class is a safe place. I may be hard on them, but it always comes from a place of love," she tells me. "Whenever you put 'Mama' in front of your name, it's comforting. They giggle at first, but they get it."

Photo by Jim Lafferty

As we settle into our seats at the table, across from each other, Michaels begins articulating a message of positivity and hope for the future of dance. The woman in front of me is self-reflective and generous. Over the course of her career, she's garnered a wealth of knowledge that she's simply bubbling to share.

DT: You mentioned it's been a big year for you. Can you tell us more?

MM: It's been a year of transitions and a year of growth. I feel like I'm really coming into my own more than ever. Particularly as a woman and as a human, as opposed to Mia Michaels the choreographer and director. I had focused so much of my life on being that one thing, that I lost a lot of myself inside of it. I was too focused on achieving success and achieving a certain status of artistry. Unless you're really good at balancing your life, it's easy to get caught up in that.

DT: What are you focusing on in your career right now?

MM: I'll always have my hands in choreography, but what really makes me tick isn't the steps or creating movement anymore. What I find most rewarding right now is making a difference in people's lives in a positive and empowering way. I find it important to share all of the lessons I've learned during my time in the industry and in life. I'm able to be "Mama Mia, Queen Unicorn" right now, and help guide the younger generation, as well as my fellow teachers and choreographers.

DT: What propelled this new direction?

MM: I think writing my book definitely was a big catalyst for the change in myself. As I reflected on my life and all of the things I've done and the lessons I've learned, I've realized that it was all geared around the dance world. I feel like I've climbed that mountain, and I've had a blast doing it. I've had heartbreak and joy and wins and losses. Now the choice is, do I stay on that mountain and continue to work to be relevant, or do I jump down and find another mountain? Our egos love to stay where we are celebrated and where people love us. But I have to keep pushing forward. If I didn't push myself, I'd still be doing "The Bench" routine [Calling You, from Season 2 of "So You Think You Can Dance"] today.

I want to explore what life has to offer—like being an author, a plus-size model, a motivational speaker, an entrepreneur, a business person. I just feel like I have all of it inside me. If I only stay in the dance world, it won't be fair to me or to the rest of the world.

Photo by Jim Lafferty

DT: Looking back, how do you view your contribution to dance?

MM: I think I was put on this earth to be the choreographer who made contemporary dance commercial. That's what I did. I took a concert-dance background, created my own style and put it in a commercial space. I brought it to the masses. People didn't even know what contemporary was before. I feel that I was the one who was supposed to kick the doors open for all the generations behind me. I did it for Stacey [Tookey] and Travis [Wall] and Sonya [Tayeh]. All these beautiful young talents are now thriving, in part because I made it accessible and relatable. I'm very proud of my role. I'm proud to have paved the way. In a weird way, I feel like my job is done as a choreographer.

DT: Is there a defining moment in which you found your voice as an artist?

MM: Yes, I was in Greece in early 2000. I was improvising in a studio on a day when it was raining. The air was humid and we were all sweaty. Everyone was dancing in the room and the lights were down. I was doing movement that was predictable and typical of how I was trained, and then all of a sudden something broke inside of me. It was like an alien creature started moving. It felt so different and so weird. I fully believe that in that moment, Mia Michaels was born. Then I took that feeling and ran with it.

DT: What do you look for in the dancers you work with?

MM: After so many auditions, I realize that the dancers I gravitate toward are the colorful ones. The ones who are different. Those are the unicorns. They inspire me because they are a version of me. They feed me as an artist.

Everybody in the dance world is trained the same. We're like soldiers. As a choreographer, you can hire amazing technicians, but it will still feel empty because there's no substance to them. Once dancers find that technique and discipline, they've got to let it go and just fly. I won't be able to draw from them emotionally or artistically if they just give me steps. I'm allergic to just steps. I need to build worlds and tell stories.

DT: Has that changed your teaching style?

MM: Absolutely. Nowadays kids and parents are way more sensitive. Back in the day you could get screamed and yelled at, and that was just how it was. We took it because that's just how we were trained. Now, teaching is much more about communication and how you deliver your message so your students can absorb it. If you don't, you'll create a wall.

Photo by Jim Lafferty

DT: You also have advice for them on the value of aging, right?

MM: As you get older, you dance less because your body doesn't support it anymore, and that's OK. Be OK with that. You have nothing to prove to your students. Standing in the front of the room and dancing with them doesn't make you a great teacher. You can let that go at some point. When you're in the mirror dancing, you're looking at yourself, but when you put your back to the mirror, you are completely focused on your kids. When I got older and I couldn't get my leg up or dance anymore, I became a much better teacher because I was focused on others instead of myself.

At 52 years old, I want people to know that life should just be getting better and better. You should feel more fulfilled, more sexy, more alive now than ever.

DT: You mentioned you have begun working as a plus-size fashion model. Can you talk a little about body image?

MM: I've spent my whole life hating on my body. The dance world told me, "You're fat. You're a rebel. You'll never dance." I was essentially laughed off the stage when I was 15 years old because of my body. I quit dancing in that moment and became a choreographer so that I could be behind the scenes and not be laughed at anymore. That started my journey as a creator, which was of course a blessing. I believe things happen for a reason and that that particular incident pushed me into being a creator of movement.

For the full article, pick up a copy of DT's January issue here.

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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