Young in Nashville's Nutcracker. Photo by Karyn Kipley, Courtesy Nashville Ballet.

Planning Plan B: How to Bounce Back If Your Top-Choice College Doesn't Accept You

This story originally appeared in the October/November 2015 issue of Pointe.

Kristin Young's family is a legacy at Indiana University. While they weren't dancers, both her mother and her sister had attended IU, and she grew up near Indianapolis making regular pilgrimages to Bloomington for sports events. So when the rejection to IU's highly competitive ballet program came, it was a huge blow. “I always thought that I would either go to IU or straight into the professional ballet world," says Young, who is now an apprentice with Nashville Ballet. Luckily, she was careful to apply to several universities. When she was accepted to the University of Oklahoma, she began imagining a different path.

Attending college before a professional ballet career has become a legitimate option for dancers. But because there aren't as many ballet-focused dance programs, serious bunheads tend to only consider a few. If you've got your sights set on just one or two schools, the competition can be as fierce as any company audition. But getting rejected from your preferred college doesn't have to be the end of the world. By researching all the options available to you, and planning your audition process strategically, you can improve your chances of getting into a good second- or third-choice school. Plan B may even end up being the best thing that ever happened to you.


Cast a Wide Net

Photo by Bonnie Kittle via Unsplash

In this information age, we have multiple resources at our fingertips for researching all the possibilities. First, make a list of the things that are most important to you in a university setting and then do your homework to find colleges with ballet-focused programs that meet those criteria. To get an idea of what's out there, you might begin by searching universities and colleges through the Dance Magazine College Guide.

Young wanted the full college experience, complete with football games and Greek life. For this reason she focused on larger schools with robust athletic departments and reputable ballet programs. Even with her specific criteria she homed in on three—IU, Butler University and OU—instead of putting all her eggs in one basket.

As for dance programs, look for a diversity of high-caliber teachers. Performance opportunities should also be paramount in your decision-making. "I grew up in a school affiliated with a professional company, so I did children's roles or corps roles in high school," recalls Young. The opportunity to perform soloist and principal roles at OU was particularly attractive to her.

When you are narrowing down schools, do more than skim its website—especially for programs you're not as familiar with. Call the department and ask questions, and look for YouTube videos of their performances, or news features about their programs. Schools may offer surprising extras not publicized online, such as touring, study abroad and internship opportunities.

From there, Mercyhurst University Dance Department chair Tauna Hunter suggests narrowing your list to at least three to five colleges to see in person. "Visit while the school is in session, not during the summer," she advises. "See how the faculty interacts with the students." In this process, you may find that the school of your dreams isn't quite the right fit and discover others that surprise you.

Make a Plan

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Next, organize an audition strategy. Scheduling them early in the year gives you time to plan more if you receive a rejection. You may even want to get your feet wet at a plan-B college before trying for your top choice. Young, who auditioned at IU first, admits that she was nervous and not in her best ballet shape. "I think getting that audition under my belt gave me the confidence to shine in my next one, which happened to be at OU," she says.

That said, if you didn't perform your best, schools may allow you to audition again for the same academic year. Mary Margaret Holt, director of OU's School of Dance, says dancers who are not successful at the October audition will often try again in January. If your first-choice school offers multiple audition opportunities, try scheduling one early enough so that you can request another later if necessary.

If you're wait-listed for your favorite college, it's hard to predict if you'll ever make it off. Therefore, don't let deadlines pass before accepting a place at your backup school. Hunter says that most colleges have their incoming class set by May 1. However, it is permissible, if you're accepted off the wait list, to pull out of another program (although you may lose a deposit). Hunter advises that dancers be forthcoming as soon as they decide to go someplace else. Doing so isn't just polite—it's also important to protect your network, since the dance world is so small.

Be Open to a Different Path

Photo by Element5 Digital via Unsplash

While getting rejected from your first-choice college is understandably upsetting, it won't hurt to ask for feedback. Holt is happy to discuss with students why they've been rejected and suggest other programs that might be a better fit.

In addition, try focusing on the opportunities available to you rather than those that aren't. After getting rejected from IU, Young got over her disappointment by seizing the opportunity to leave her comfort zone and move to a new city.

"I absolutely thrived at Oklahoma," says Young. "It was the perfect place for me." She graduated in three and a half years and, thanks to a recommendation from Holt, immediately joined Tulsa Ballet as a guest artist for their production of Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove. She started the following season with Nashville Ballet 2 before being promoted to apprentice last year. "Don't be discouraged if you don't get into your favorite school," she says. "Something better could be around the next corner."

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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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