Taryn Mejia and Lamin Pereira in Balanchine's "Diamonds." Savanna Daniels, Courtesy KCB.

My Most Frustrating Year of Dance Training: How 3 Pros Handled Major Setbacks

Classes, cross training, summer intensives, performing—we put our all into our ballet training. Yet, sometimes things just don't go as planned. Injuries, prolonged emotional stress and audition struggles are just a few things that can make us feel like our ballet journey has ground to a halt.

But that doesn't mean you won't break through. We spoke with three professionals who had major setbacks as students. Read on to see how they handled it—and how they grew from their experiences.

Battling a Long-Term Injury

Margaet Mullin, in a long green tut and sparkly green tiara, kneels onstage with her palms up and crossed in front of her.

Margaret Mullin in Balanchine's "Emeralds"

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

Margaret Mullin, Pacific Northwest Ballet

"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Margaret Mullin. "I was doing a quick petit allégro combination, slipped on the floor, fell down and heard a snapping noise." Then 16, she sustained torn ankle ligaments. She was supposed to go to PNB's summer intensive later that summer. "After you've been going away to summer intensives for years, you feel like that's a trajectory you can't stop, especially at an age when you hope to be getting a professional job soon," she says. "Instead, I spent nearly a year being a beginner again."

At home, Mullin would cry on her couch while watching a video of New York City Ballet's Swan Lake featuring former principal Miranda Weese. "I thought I would never be able to return to where I was technically, and I'd never make it as a professional dancer," she says.

As part of her recovery, Mullin took adult ballet classes at her home studio in Tucson, Arizona. "I learned a lot from those classes, especially from being in an atmosphere where people were dancing just because they loved ballet," she recalls. "I also took classes with younger students as I started doing pointe again—that was a little harder for me as teenager, but it was a great opportunity to focus on the basic mechanics of technique."

Through the whole experience, Mullin learned how to deal with being injured. "I've seen other professionals go through a major injury for the first time as adults, and it can be very challenging if you've never been through the process before," she says. "In the end, spending a year in beginner classes did not permanently set me back—a few years later, I was dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet."

In fact, Mullin ended up dancing alongside Miranda Weese, who had by then joined PNB. "If you had told me that when I was injured, I wouldn't have believed you," says Mullin.

Navigating a Gap Year

Anna Carnes, wearign a long-sleeved green leotard, balances on pointe in a turned-in fourth position with both knees bent and her arms lifted high.

Anna Carnes

Rose Eichenbaum, Courtesy State Street Ballet

Anna Carnes, State Street Ballet

Anna Carnes graduated from the University of California, Irvine, with BFA in dance in 2007, the beginning of a rough period for both the economy and the arts. The financial crisis had caused many dance companies to either close or not hire new members, and while Carnes attended many auditions, she didn't receive any contracts. She second-guessed the decision she'd made to attend college instead of taking one of the several second-company positions she had been offered years prior. "I had hoped I would be a professional by this time, but now I didn't even have a foot in the door," Carnes recalls.

Instead of entering company life, she packed up and moved to San Francisco for a year of independent training. "I had taken a workshop at Alonzo King LINES Ballet and really liked the style and philosophy," says Carnes. "So, I trained there and with other teachers in the city." She juggled dance classes with teaching and retail jobs. "It really changed my approach to class. After dancing all day at college, I went to taking maybe one class a day, depending on my work schedule and finances. It forced me to prioritize my time in class and who I chose to work with."

She also honed the aspects of her dancing that she had control over. In auditions, Carnes, who is 5'8", had often been told that she was too tall. Now, instead of worrying about her height in class, she focused on her ballet port de bras. She got out of her comfort zone by working in different styles and asking teachers for feedback. "It all helped me refine both my classical and contemporary sides."

Carnes spent the next four years freelancing and taking seasonal company contracts. Finally, in 2012, she received a contract with State Street Ballet.

"Training in San Francisco was a year of doubt and frustration," she recalls. "But, sometimes, it's good to take a step back, instead of blindly following one path."

Training Far From Home

\u200bLamin Pereira, wearing white tights and an embellished off-white tunic, poses in tendu derierre with his left hand on the small of Taryn Mejia's back. Mejia wears a sparkly off-white tutu and tiara and stands on her left leg in B plus, looking towards Pereira.

Lamin Pereira and Taryn Mejia in Balanchine's "Diamonds"

Savanna Daniels, Courtesy KCB.

Taryn Mejia, Kansas City Ballet

At age 16, Taryn Mejia embarked on a ballet student's dream: moving to New York City to train at the School of American Ballet. What she wasn't prepared for was how different life would be away from her support system. Back at home in Kansas City, Mejia had attended a local high school and danced in the evenings. She went to football games, had friends who weren't involved with ballet and, most of all, lived with her supportive parents.

"At SAB, ballet was my whole life," says Mejia. "What happened in the studio affected the rest of my day. All of the students at SAB are so talented and everyone is working hard for the same jobs. Naturally, competition arises. So many days, I would come into class already frustrated and upset. It affected my ability to dance." While she was still able to call her family every night, it wasn't the same as being at home with them.

Living on her own also meant that her parents weren't planning her meals anymore. She struggled to properly nourish her body for the amount of dancing she was doing on a daily basis, and alternated between not consuming enough food and binging.

Mejia went on to dance with New York City Ballet for three seasons, but the emotional toll of her first year away from home ultimately sent her down a path that led her to step away from her career at age 21— before coming back six years later to join Kansas City Ballet.

"The technical training I received at SAB was invaluable and helped me be able to return to professional dance years later. What I learned, though, and what I hope students and parents understand, is that being a dancer is about emotional health, as well—being a whole person."

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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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