Our Best Tips: Stretch and Strengthen Your Développé Devant

Everybody wants a higher extension, but achieving your best line is a long-term effort that includes both flexibility and strength. Here are two of our best tips on how to improve your développé devant by engaging and releasing the hard-to-find psoas muscles.

Strength

Controlled extensions to the front are not only physically difficult, but they're sometimes hard to understand anatomically. Obviously, you want to work on increasing your flexibility with daily hamstring stretches. But often, the culprit is a weak iliopsoas—a group of deep core muscles that attach at the spine and run through the abdomen to the front of the hip. Your iliopsoas is crucial in lifting the leg, but it's tough to find, and even tougher to activate.

(Courtesy Karen Clippinger)
Try this iliopsoas strengthener recommended by kinesiologist Karen Clippinger, author of Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology: Tie a medium-weight Thera-Band around your legs just above the knee and lie back on your elbows with your knees bent and feet lifted off the ground. Your pelvis should be tucked under at first to help you find your iliopsoas. Pull one knee in towards your chest, straighten the leg without letting the knee move away from the torso (it's okay if you can't fully straighten it) and return to the starting position, repeating six times on each side (eventually increasing to 10 reps). As you gain strength, practice the exercise with a more neutral pelvis, and gradually progress from leaning on your elbows to a more vertical position leaning on your hands.
(Courtesy Karen Clippinger)
Another exercise is to simply place the leg on the barre in croisé devant, keeping the hips square and lifting out of the supporting hip. Rotating from the top of the hip, feel a lengthening, spiraling energy through the working leg and lift it off the barre. Hold for five counts and slowly lower. Don't worry if you can only lift it a few inches—this exercise will strengthen your deep turnout muscles, which will take pressure off the quad and create support from underneath.

Amy Brandt

Flexibility

(Photo courtesy Thinkstock)

If you constantly find yourself reaching for a foam roller, you're not alone. “Dancers' hip flexors are very often tight because of how much they use them every day," says Michelle Rodriguez, founder and director of Manhattan Physio Group. Each développé devant and cambré forward fires this set of muscles, so it's no wonder why dancers complain of the chronically tight spot. Here, Rodriguez offers her tips for a proper lunge that stretches not only the tensor fasciae latae, psoas and iliacus muscles, which all help flex the hip, but also the quadriceps. “Ideally this stretch should be done every day, even on your day off from dancing," says Rodriguez. Save it for after barre when your body is warm, or at the end of class or rehearsal.

Hip Flexor Stretch

1. To set up to stretch your right side, kneel on your right knee. Rodriguez says you can position a towel or legwarmer underneath to cushion it if necessary. Place the left leg in front of you with your knee bent to about 90 degrees. You can place your hands on top of your knee, or hold on to the barre with one hand for balance.

2. Firmly squeeze your lower right gluteals, and zip up your abdominals from your pubic bone to your belly button. “By activating these muscles, you will be able to place your pelvis in the best position to maximize the stretch," she says. You should now feel it in your right hip and thigh.

3. Throughout the stretch, keep the thigh you're kneeling on vertical. “A very common mistake dancers make is to go too far into a much deeper lunge," says Rodriguez. If you use a larger range of motion, you risk getting less of a stretch in the tensor fasciae latae, psoas, iliacus and quadriceps.

4. Once you can maintain the shape with proper muscular engagement, only then should you slowly lunge forward, says Rodriguez, towards the end of the stretch.

Repetitions: Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and repeat on the other side. Do two complete sets.

Madeline Schrock

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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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