Jackie Nash with Jacob Bush in Allegro Brillante. Photo by Kim Kenney, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

4 Pros Share Their Greatest Technique Struggles as Students And How They Overcame Them

Ballet schools are back in session and dancers are preparing to be back in class with all of its exhilaration, magic, and, of course, struggle.

Today, four dancers reveal what they found challenging as ballet students and how they now look at their technique as professionals.


Teresa Reichlen, New York City Ballet

Teresa Reichlen in Swan Lake. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

As a student, there wasn't any one step that I particularly struggled with—I could do them all on their own—but I struggled to coordinate and connect them.

Over time, as I got older and moved into the professional realm, I realized there were ideals in ballet, but that they weren't always worth the sacrifice.

When you're as student, you're so focused on being as turned out as possible or having the highest extension possible, but then you get out on stage with no mirror and lights are shining in your face and you realize that you'll fall over if you're holding your leg as high as it can possibly go. Or, for me, when I'm in a perfectly turned-out first position, it might be 180 degrees, but I'm turning out from my knees and it isn't a workable position.

So, you learn to be satisfied and work within stability and consistency; 160 degrees can be better than 180.

Jackie Nash, Atlanta Ballet

Jackie Nash with Moisés Martín in Atlanta Ballet's Bach to Broadway program. Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.

I've always loved the physicality of dance. But, as a student, I was not the most flexible naturally, so flexibility and extension were things I was always working on.

My teacher helped me realize that just because you aren't born with something doesn't mean you can't improve.

When you're younger, it's easy to see what you don't like. You think "my legs aren't the right shape" or "I wish I had a better plié". As a professional you still see those things—not as obstacles, but as what makes you unique.

I've likewise been fortunate to find mentors and physical therapists who also do not see these things as obstacles and help me find ways to work with them.

Jack Thomas, Pennsylvania Ballet

Jack Thomas in Swan Lake. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

My greatest struggles were flexibility, partnering, and jumping. Growing up, I watched a lot of ballet videos and focused on repetitions in class.

When I was 14 and trying to do double tours, my teacher told me "do 15 doubles tours to right and 15 to left. Do that for 6 days a week and you've done 180 double tours in just a week. Do that for 6 weeks and you've done 1,080 double tours." That made me more confident.

When I was younger, I thought that I couldn't be a professional without perfect technique. And I held on to that belief for a while. Now I see technique as more of a tool for dancing. Well-honed technique allows me to focus on connecting with the audience and my peers.

I'm from Colorado and we have a large sports community here. I take inspiration from athletes. One thing they say in the sports community is "trust your stuff." I like that. When I go onstage, I like to think "you've done the repetitions, you've put in the work" and I let go.

Kayla Rowser, Nashville Ballet

Kayla Rowser in Swan Lake. Photo by Karyn Photography, Courtesy Nashville Ballet.

I struggled with petit allegro once we started adding beats. Petit allegro itself was fine, but beats were a challenge.

I'm naturally a slower mover — I love adagio — and it was hard to maintain my technique while moving quickly. When I was first learning beats, I didn't realize I wasn't fully holding my turnout from start to finish.

As a student, you're always hard on yourself, you're always getting corrections, you're in "student mode". I'm more forgiving now, I've come to acknowledge that some things will always be harder than others.

Once you move into the professional realm you also have to focus more on artistry. Technique is a tool and foundation, but you're a performer. It's okay to fall over in an attempt to create a character.

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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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