Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Thinking About Full-Time Training Programs? 6 Key Discussions to Have First

If you think a full-time pre-professional program might be right for you, it's never too early to start talking about the big transition. Deciding to forgo a "normal" high school experience for the chance to take your training to the next level is life-changing, and it's vital to have in-depth discussions with your family. Here's a checklist of topics to bring up—before the auditions begin.


1. What are my professional goals?

At the very least, you should feel sure that you want a professional dance career. But beyond tutus and dreams, it's important to understand what this means on a day-to-day level: the daily grind of technique classes and physical therapy, all-consuming workdays, and the endless pursuit of artistry and perfection. "I find a lot of students haven't done enough research on what a professional life is about—what it really means," says Denise Bolstad, managing director of Pacific Northwest Ballet School.

In addition, think about what kind of company you want to join and which schools can facilitate that. What's your favorite repertoire? Are you interested in a large company or a smaller one? For instance, Miami City Ballet corps member Ellen Grocki knew she loved Balanchine, so she researched schools where she'd gain extensive training in the style. She eventually left her home in Maryland at 16 to study at MCB School.


Summer intensive students at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.


But if you're not sure exactly where and what you want to dance yet, it's not the end of the world. "When our students come in at 14, they have dreams of being the next Makarova," says Michael Owen, director of dance at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, a boarding arts high school in Natick, Massachusetts. "Then, in the years they're here, a lot changes for them—their eyes open up to other styles of movement."

Valerie Madonia, academy director at Colorado Ballet Academy, agrees: "As you grow and mature, your options will become more apparent, as far as which companies suit you, or whether in the end you decide to go to a college dance program."


2. How do we evaluate a school's quality of training?

A school's prestigious reputation doesn't always mean it will be best for you. Your top priority when researching pre-professional programs, says Bolstad, should be finding the best quality of training that your family can manage, location and budget-wise. Look at schools' curriculums (usually available on the website), and ask peers and teachers for recommendations. Attend summer intensives, if possible—and the sooner, the better. "Your investment in a school needs to start earlier than 17 or 18," says Bolstad. "Audition for at least one summer course, so you have a sense of what an organization is like." An intensive can be a good "trial run" to find what feels right. If going to one isn't possible, consider visiting for a few days during the academic year.

Additionally, ask the school about its track record of placing students in companies and college dance programs—and, specifically, which ones. "Do they only feed into their company, or do they feed into others around the world?" says Madonia. "Do the students come out versatile and ready to apply to many different programs?" It's a strong testament to the quality of the program—and the hire-ability of its graduates—if its dancers succeed in a variety of settings.


Valerie Madonia teaching pre-professional students at the Colorado Ballet Academy. Photo by Francesco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.


3. Should I wait until after high school to train full-time?

This question depends on the quality of your current training. "It's very individual," says Bolstad. In many cases, dancers "have a slight advantage if they've left sooner, before graduating high school."

But if you have solid training at your home studio and choose the normal high school route, it's not too late. Most trainee programs and second companies accept recent high school graduates. "Times have changed in the last 20 years," says Madonia. "We're also seeing more wonderful college programs, and seeing students going from college into second companies, into companies." Owen agrees: "Now, it's not unheard of for dancers who are 21, 22 or 23 to get into companies for the first time."



Photo courtesy Walnut Hill School for the Arts


4. If not, what do I do about my education?

Most dancers who train full-time during high school either continue their education online or through flexible classroom options. At MCB School, Grocki took classes at a high school across the street from the studio each morning before heading into her 10 am technique class. At performing arts high schools like Walnut Hill, academics are built into the daily schedule.

Online programs require a certain personality type for a student to be successful. You'll need to be driven, organized, time-efficient and okay working alone on a computer for hours each day. "I've seen some students excel without a problem and others who struggle with time management," says Madonia.


5. What are the housing options?

There are three basic housing setups in most boarding programs: dormitories, host families or, for the most independent dancers, unsupervised apartments. One of the reasons Grocki chose MCB School was that there were dorms across the street from the studio. She lived there her first year; by her second, her mom felt comfortable letting her move into an unsupervised apartment with fellow dancers.

For those who want more of a family experience, or if dorms aren't available, many programs will house you with a host family who already has a connection to the school and can provide meals, transportation and emotional support. Keep in mind that some schools, like PNB, do not offer supervised housing, in which case dancers rent apartments (usually with roommates).


Photo courtesy Walnut Hill School for the Arts.


6. How will we pay for this?

Ballet tuition, let alone housing and living expenses, is costly, and it's important for dancers to understand how heavily this factor may weigh on their parents. Merit-based scholarships are the most coveted form of financial aid, but also the hardest to come by. For Grocki, a half merit scholarship was a huge factor in making her dream possible. Need-based financial aid is usually more readily available, but be aware that the application deadlines may fall early in the summer, before you receive the invitation to study. Independent scholarships and grants through organizations like the National YoungArts Foundation can help pay tuition costs.

Some schools may offer work-study opportunities, while other times, dancers find outside work to help offset living expenses. At Colorado Ballet Academy, students often pick up babysitting jobs for parents of other students or even their dance teachers.

If your family can make it work, the investment in your training is well worth it. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be accepted and study in a major national school," says Bolstad. "I don't think anyone ever regrets it."

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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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