Alexandra MacDonald (front row, third from left) didn't win a medal at the Genée International Ballet Competition, but says she came home inspired and newly motivated by the people she met there. Photo Courtesy Genée IBC.

More Than A Medal: Why These Pro Dancers Didn't Have to Win to Benefit from Ballet Competitions

Ballet competitions are an exciting part of any dancer's career. Yet while scholarships, prize money, job offers and the prestige that comes with winning a medal are compelling incentives to participate in one, they're not the only benefits. In fact, many dancers who go home empty-handed still look fondly on the experience and go on to become successful professionals.

This week, the 2019 Genée International Ballet Competition kicks off in Toronto. From August 20-29, over 50 dancers, ages 15–19 and trained in the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus, will perform three solos in the hopes of winning a medal and a $10,000 cash prize. Many past medalists have gone on to illustrious careers—but so have those who didn't win anything. We spoke with three Genée alumni now dancing professionally who know what it's like not to place. Read on to find out why they deem their comp experiences a success, and how you can make the most of yours—whether you win or not.


Ashley Shaw: Matthew Bourne's New Adventures

Ashley Shaw in a promotional photo for Matthew Bourne's The Red Shoes.

Hugo Glendenning, Courtesy Genée International Ballet Competition.

Australian-born Ashley Shaw has enjoyed dancing in Matthew Bourne's UK–based New Adventures for over a decade. With a long list of principal roles in her repertoire, including Vicky Page from The Red Shoes, Shaw has had a career that many dancers dream about. But before all of that success, she was a familiar face on the competition circuit. "I have been competing since I was 5-years-old and got very comfortable being onstage," says Shaw.

One thing she learned along the way, she says, is that "not winning will not damage your career." Shaw, who went to the Genée three times, says that some dancers get so wrapped up in medals and prizes that they miss out on other important aspects of the competition. Reflecting back on her time there, she says, "I tried my best and winning would have been incredible, but for me the experience was so great that I never felt like I lost."

Shaw performing the Act I variation from Giselle at the Genée International Ballet Competition.

Courtesy Genée IBC.

Shaw contributes her positive outlook to the amazing people she met there. "Being from a small town in Australia, I was so excited to meet dancers from all over the world," she says. "They were all so talented, and on top of that they were funny, interesting, intelligent and so much fun to be around." Shaw has since crossed paths with many of her fellow competitors in a professional capacity and appreciates the bond that was initially sparked at the Genée. "I've danced with them, worked for them, taught for them and watched them perform."

Shaw encourages dancers to make the most of their experience by getting to know their fellow contestants. "It's so magical to bond with someone from the other side of the world because of a shared passion," she says. And the relationships you build could help you down the road in your own dance career.

Alexandra McDonald: First Soloist, National Ballet of Canada 

National Ballet of Canada first soloist Alexandra MacDonald

Karolina Kuras, Courtesy Genée IBC

From participating in the Genée IBC to the Youth America Grand Prix to the Prix de Lausanne, National Ballet of Canada first soloist Alexandra MacDonald is no stranger to the ballet comp circuit. Now the stand-out dancer is quickly rising through the ranks at NBoC. She says that competitions exposed her to an incredibly talented group of artists who invigorated her dancing and motivated her to exceed beyond her own expectations. "After witnessing many beautiful and inspiring performances," says MacDonald, "I returned home with new goals and renewed motivation to keep pushing myself and my dancing further."

She also credits competitions with providing young dancers with invaluable training and exposure to choreographers and coaches that typically wouldn't be available to them back home. "Getting to learn from Yuri Ng, who was the commissioned choreographer for the Genée the year I attended, was an eye-opening process," says MacDonald. "He allowed me to explore my artistry and the story behind my dancing."

Macdonald's advice for those who want to have a positive comp experience—regardless of winning—is to watch and learn from those around you. "You're so lucky to be surrounded by so much talent from all over the world. Allow it to bolster and inspire you."

Mlindi Kulashi: Leading Soloist, Northern Ballet

Mlindi Kulashi in rehearsal for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Justin Slee, Courtesy Genée IBC

Growing up in the poverty-stricken townships of Cape Town, South Africa, Mlindi Kulashe might have laughed if you told him that one day he'd not only perform as a leading soloist for Northern Ballet, but also choreograph for the UK-based ballet company. In fact, Kulashe didn't even know what ballet was until he joined Cape Town City Ballet's outreach program at age 10. However, with continual training and hard work his talent developed, and seven years later he qualified for the Genée. "I'm not a very competitive person, but it felt more important to enter the competition with the hopes that it would kickstart my career," he says. But it didn't turn out the way he'd planned. "In many ways I wasn't really prepared and I didn't end up placing," Kulashe recalls.

Kulashi as George Wilson in The Great Gatsby.

Emma Kauldhar, Courtesy Genée IBC.

Disappointed over his performance and with no way to fund his dance training, Kulashe decided to quit dancing. But a few months later he received a scholarship to attend the English National Ballet School, thanks in part to a talent scout who saw him dance at the Genée. Two years into his training at ENB, Kulashe returned home to Cape Town and competed in the Genée again, where he was awarded the bronze medal. "I wouldn't be where I am now had I not danced in these competitions," says Kulashe.

He says his favorite part of competing is the platform it gives young dancers. "It's an opportunity for you to showcase your talent," he says. You never know who might be watching.

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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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