Patrick Frenette in Michelle Dorrance's Praedicere for American Ballet Theatre

Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT

A Letter to Danseurs: ABT's Patrick Frenette Shares What He’s Learned With the Next Generation of Young, Male Ballet Dancers

When I was 14 years old, I placed in Youth America Grand Prix's final round and was offered a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School's summer intensive. As overjoyed as I was, I couldn't help but realize just how hard I'd had to fight to get to this point. Despite the years of tears, bullies and constant exclusion that I'd faced, I hadn't given up—and it was paying off.


A young Frenette in black tights and a black and gold velvet jacket kneels onstage with one hand on the hip and the other in the air. He looks to the side, as if defiantly at the end of a variation.

Frenette at age 14, competing in YAGP

VAM Productions, Courtesy Frenette

I started dancing at 3, following in the footsteps of my older sister Emma. By the time I left for my first summer at the Royal Ballet School, both ballet and bullying had been a part of my life for 11 years. Today, I am in the middle of my seventh season with American Ballet Theatre. Looking back on my own experiences, I want to offer guidance to my fellow danseurs, because I know your struggle. I know how hard it is to be excluded from birthday parties, or to come home from school with a black eye. I know what it's like to keep dancing in the face of adversity.

Two couples dressed in elaborate gold and orange outfits stand side by side. In both, the man and the woman look at each other. They both stand in a fourth position and hold hands with the other hand held behind their back.

Frenette (third from left) with Stephanie Williams in ABT's Swan Lake

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Communicate

No matter how many times my family tried to stop the hostility I faced at school, no number of meetings with principals could change the toxic culture I was subjected to. Eventually, I enrolled in an online high school. Many of my bullies' parents supported their children's hatred towards me, and it was through this experience that I learned not everyone is going to like you.

Communication is key. Be it your parents, close friends, ballet instructors or school teachers, these people can help and protect you if you let them know what's going on. Being a victim of bullying or discrimination can take a serious toll on the mind and body, but expressing how it affects you is the first step in reclaiming your well-being and happiness.

A very young Frenette stands in first position in front of a barre in black shorts, white tee and white shoes with socks. He looks serene and holds a small Canadian flag in his hands.

6-year-old Frenette after a Royal Academy of Dance exam

Kimber Frenette, Courtesy Frenette

Keep Dancing

When I was in the thick of dodging bullies, I started dreading ballet class. My inspiration to dance was dwindling, and I was constantly exhausted. One day after class at the Goh Ballet Academy, Alex Wong (yes, that Alex Wong, dance superstar), who was an older student and a mentor to me, noticed that my usual positive energy wasn't the same and pulled me aside. After I shared what was going on, he gave me some advice that has stuck with me every day since: "Keep dancing, no matter what."

For the past five summers, I have had the privilege of teaching at Boys Ballet Summer Intensive in Cary, North Carolina. I co-founded the program with my mother, Kimber Frenette, and International Ballet Academy director Christina Fannéy. Last summer, over 80 students ages 12 to 19 joined us for two incredible weeks. Some of the boys are victims of extreme prejudice and exclusion, much like I was. My goal is to show them that by dancing through their hardships, they can build character that will assist them in overcoming their naysayers, and help them become more confident no matter what path they choose to follow.

Frenette and Holloway, dressed in patterned grey and red capri pants and yellow and red tops stag leap through the air.

Frenette (right) with Connor Holloway in Alexei Ratmansky's The Seasons

Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT

Find a Hobby

Ballet has a way of enveloping our lives. While my happiness was in constant flux throughout my childhood, my outside hobbies were crucial and helped fuel my passion for dance. I couldn't wait to get home to my Legos, GameCube and sketchbook. I would dream up comics about Spider-Man rescuing me from my classroom to take me to New York City to fight bad guys. Though my ballet school was always a safe haven, I had to find ways to stay afloat in the parts of my life that did not include dance. Today I continue to rely on creative outlets like drawing, photography and playing video games with friends online to keep me inspired.

Frenette in a black jacket and grey tights kneels at Crymble's feet, holding the hem of her skirt against his cheek. She stands in a romantic tutu very upright on pointe with her hands held in the classic Giselle formation.

At age 15, dancing Giselle with Thalia Crymble

David Cooper, Courtesy Frenette

It Gets Better

Growing up, the more I talked about ballet at school, the fewer friends I had. Pretty soon I was picked last for sports teams and was the only one not getting a valentine. On my 9th birthday, only one girl stood up to sing "Happy Birthday" to me while the rest of the class sat silent. If my experiences sound familiar to you, I want you to know that things get better.

When I was 17, I moved to New York City to attend the School of American Ballet. This freethinking city and classroom full of danseurs was exactly what I needed. I made long-standing friendships at SAB, and later at ABT, that I did not think were possible when I was stuck in the trenches of my middle school years. If you are being bullied or excluded, I encourage you to remain hopeful. Continue to pursue dance, surround yourself with like-minded people who understand your commitment to the arts, and leave those bullies behind.

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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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