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"Our Studio Is Failing Its Students of Color": One Dancer's Experience of Racism and Microaggressions

I recently spent a Saturday night with my husband and my 17-year-old dancing daughter, who sobbed at the foot of our bed. My daughter revealed her experiences with implicit bias and overt racism in school, and especially in the dance studio.

For six years, she has danced at a classical ballet school tied to the city's ballet company. The previous six years were spent at a mid-sized recreational/competition studio. I want to recount a few examples of the racism that my daughter shared that night.


Several years ago, her competition team was performing Disney's Peter Pan, already known for its racist imagery and narrative. My daughter was the only Black girl on the competition team and was cast as a Native American. While preparing for the competition, one of her teachers was braiding her hair as part of her costume, when this teacher exclaimed loudly that my daughter's freshly washed and flat-ironed hair was "greasy and nasty" and that she "had to go wash her hands after braiding her hair." I complained to the studio owner, who defended this teacher with the typical refrain, "she didn't mean anything by it." We left this studio a year later. That teacher—who had a litany of incidents displaying racist microaggressions toward the few dancers of color and bullying behavior toward other students—is still teaching at this studio today.

Next, my daughter walked into a less-than-welcoming atmosphere at her current classical ballet studio. As the school joined the American Ballet Theatre's Project Plié initiative (the purpose of which is to expand diversity and inclusion efforts at ballet schools around the country), a few teachers openly criticized the studio's efforts, demonstrating to their students of color their lack of commitment to the idea of diversity in ballet.

My daughter has been dismissed and ignored, given limited encouragement and few corrections. Other students—white students—have openly questioned why she received call-backs and why she was chosen for certain parts (which were few and far between). We asked for private lessons to improve her technique. We were told that the school "did not believe in private lessons" and that my daughter would only benefit from taking class with other dancers. However, we consistently watched as other dancers in the studio were offered private lessons.

Every year, there was some new rule change, like resetting the minimum level for joining the youth ballet. My daughter was consistently placed in the level just below the cut-off. Each year, my daughter watched students who were clearly not as skilled as she was promoted to the next level. She asked her teachers what she needed to work on to improve. Some simply ignored her request. Those who responded stated that she was a hard-worker, was technically proficient and was not behind. However, her placement and treatment were inconsistent with those statements. The teacher who had been the most unkind stated that she should not be "making excuses" for her placement, even though the conversation was phrased as "What can I work on to improve?" When my daughter received a high score on her ABT test, this same instructor pointed out in class that the ABT examiner "must have really liked you." She did not make the same statement to the white dancers who scored well.

In recent years, my daughter has begun to dread dance. She does not want to take certain teachers' classes and begs to skip on the days that they teach. She knows that she will be placed in a lower level, ignored in class, criticized for her body type and height, and told not to use her muscles (a common critique of Black dancers). She has asked to quit dance altogether. I continue to encourage her to work hard and improve, and they will not be able to deny her—advice that I honestly do not even believe anymore.

We have few options for classical ballet in our city, which is why we have chosen to stay. I have hired private teachers from outside of our studio. We have traveled outside of the state to attend summer intensive auditions held by other schools and companies. After spending time in privates and attending other summer intensives, my daughter has received comments from her teachers about how surprised they are at how much she has improved. Yet, her status never changes. She is not elevated. She is not nurtured. She is not supported. They have torn her down and depleted her confidence and self-worth. And then they tell her that she was not moved up because she lacks confidence—the very thing that they have taken away from her.

My beautiful dancing daughter with her long lines, gorgeous port de bras arms and high arabesque has been denied equal treatment in the dance world. She stated a couple of years ago, "It just seems like they want me to fail." At this point, I cannot disagree with her. As she enters her senior year of high school, I worry if she will get into a college dance program. I worry that she has already lost too much time to make up for what she did not receive from her studio.

Our studio is failing its students of color. Tolerating bullying teachers. Promoting one Black student as the poster child for the studio's commitment to diversity, while ignoring other promising students of color. Giving one-year scholarships to Project Plié students while not nurturing the growth and retention of all students of color.

My daughter sat sobbing at the foot of my bed because she has done everything right, yet the world that she loves and has embraced since she was 5 years old does not see her and does not love her back.

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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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