Learning from your competition can help rechannel jealous feelings. Photo by Eric Ostling.

Seeing Green: Jealousy in the Studio

They are the urban legends of the dance studio: glass in a dancer's pointe shoes, ribbons cut before she goes onstage. The film Black Swan took things a step further, depicting a dancer so wracked with obsessive jealousy that she turns into a monster.

While these caricatures of the jealous ballerina are far from reality, it is not surprising that most dancers will battle bouts of green envy at least a few times in their careers. “It happens to all of us," says American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Paulina Waski, who despite signing a contract with ABT at 16 admits she's felt envious of fellow dancers. “Especially when you are at the point of transitioning from a student to a professional dancer."

According to Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet, jealousy is completely normal. However, it creates both physical and mental tension. “It can get in the way of relationships," she says. When Waski was promoted into ABT, she sensed that some of her colleagues from the ABT Studio Company grew distant. Later, she experienced jealous behavior from older company members. “It felt lonely," she says.


If jealousy is allowed to fester, it can affect the entire class. "A class should always be pushing each other, but in a healthy way," says Arantxa Ochoa, director of faculty and curriculum at Miami City Ballet School. Healthy competition may sound like a contradiction, but Kaslow notes that "competition can also motivate people to do their best and try their hardest." It becomes unhealthy when winning becomes paramount, especially at the expense of others.

Don't be disheartened if you feel jealous of another dancer from time to time. Here are some tips to reframe your thinking so that it doesn't become a detriment to your dancing and friendships.

Stay Focused on Yourself

It takes a lot of energy to continually measure yourself against those around you. “One of the best things you can do is stay focused on yourself and your own progress," says Kaslow. She advises that instead of worrying about whether your leg is the highest in the room, focus on making it is as high as you, personally, can get it. “Otherwise you're going to end up in a competition and you're not really going to do what you need to do to get better," she adds.

Keep in mind, too, that some dancers simply bloom earlier. “Don't compare yourself to others, because our paths are very different," says Ochoa. She notes that she has seen the underdog make it many times, “because they don't get discouraged."

When you see a dancer who has something that you lack, remember that we all have unique attributes. “I think that often people end up feeling jealous because they are feeling badly about themselves," says Kaslow. She advises dancers to focus inward. Try not to become so distracted by what another dancer has that you miss all the wonderful qualities that belong only to you.


Arantxa Ochoa teaching at Miami City Ballet School. Photo by Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

Maintain Perspective

If someone is getting more attention in class, receiving better parts or leveling up, remember that the teachers or directors making those decisions have their own subjective preferences. “Ballet is all about perspective," says Ochoa. “Some people love a certain principal and others don't like her. But that is a beautiful thing about it," she says. “You cannot put a number on it; it is an art form." Another teacher or choreographer may see even more in you.

Learn from Your Competition

Let's face it—if a dancer has you turning green, they are probably doing something you wish you could do yourself. Instead of comparing yourself to her, see it as an opportunity to learn her secrets. “It is good to see that another dancer jumps higher," says Ochoa, “because then you will want to jump higher, too."

Waski isn't a born turner, so at times she would grow jealous of others who could do more rotations, especially when she was competing for an ABT corps contract. She learned to rechannel her feelings. “I want to learn from other dancers if they have a strength I don't have," she says. “Jealousy can take you back a few steps because you get insecure and you try to be like that person. Then you lose sight of who you are as a dancer."


Thinkstock.

Appreciate the Beauty in Others

When you started dancing some time ago, you likely did so because you saw a dancer or performance that inspired you. Hold on to the motivation that came from that sense of awe. “Oftentimes we feel jealous of something because we respect and admire it," says Kaslow. “Try to allow yourself to have more of those positive feelings." One of the best ways to do this is to get to know the dancer that you are jealous of. “The better you get to know someone and their strengths and challenges," she says, “the more of a complete picture you have. You start to see them as just another human being, not an unattainable idea."

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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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