Longaria gave herself daily barre outdoors while at Zion National Park. Courtesy Longoria

This Dancer Spent a Month in Zion National Park as an Artist in Residence

For ballet dancers, taking daily class is one of the most natural things they can do.

But taking class in nature is an entirely different story.

Last September, outdoor barre became the new normal for Sarah Longoria during her monthlong stint at Utah's Zion National Park. She lived onsite as an artist in residence, the park's first-ever dancer to be selected for the position. We caught up with Longoria about her time dancing in the shadows of the canyon.


Longoria in a cambr\u00e9 forward as she pli\u00e9s on her supporting leg and her working leg extends in a tendu derriere. She is at the ballet barre on the lawn in front of a vast mountain view.

Class on the lawn in front of the Zion National Park Lodge

Courtesy Longoria

The director of the Salt Lake City–based Municipal Ballet Co., Longoria heard about Zion's residency program several years before she decided to apply. She was originally unsure if they'd be open to hosting a dancer, but she was a lover of the Utah desert and several works she'd choreographed for her company had been inspired by nature—including Wilder, which featured performances in the mountains and near a river.

Longoria was one of 104 artists from various disciplines to apply for a 2019 residency. Only four were chosen.

As an artist in residence, she lived alone at a cabin that dates back to 1925. "Since I'm a mom and a wife, I'm not alone very often," says Longoria. At first, she was homesick, but "eventually I got to like having this alone time. In the morning, I would grind the beans, make my coffee. Do it all nice and slow and open the windows, taking my time because I only had myself to get ready." After donning her volunteer uniform of khaki shorts and a button-up shirt, she'd head to the nearby Zion National Park Lodge.

A rustic 1925 stone cabin, nestled around scrub and trees. A rock formation towers in the background.

Longaria's home during her stay at Zion National Park.

Jenna Pullen/Flint and Feather Photography, Courtesy Longoria

Longoria was free to explore her art however she wished, but she had to spend 20 hours a week interacting with the public. Whereas visual artists could easily host an open studio, allowing visitors to browse their paintings, Longoria chose to create her own open studio of sorts: Each day, she retrieved her portable barre from the lodge, set it up near a cottonwood tree on the expansive front lawn and gave herself class outdoors.

"A lot of people would stop and talk to me or ask what I was doing," she says. Some asked, "Are you doing yoga?" Others told her about their grandchildren who dance, or reminisced about taking ballet themselves when they were younger.

Despite the varied reactions, it was an opportunity to dialogue about the arts. "I tried to not worry about getting through class at a certain pace," says Longoria. One element was particularly illuminating: Longoria found herself explaining what a ballet barre was and how it was used for daily exercises. "I didn't think a ton about that before: Most people don't see ballet class, actually." Whereas they might see a ballet performance, she explain, class might be totally foreign.

Longoria sips from a water bottle will standing on a grassy lawn. A large group of park visitors are seated in the grass watching.

Longoria during a presentation for park guests

Courtesy Longoria

Longoria admits that, at first, taking barre in such an open environment was a bit uncomfortable. "Class is where we're working on ourselves, so I had to remind myself that I'm a work in progress always and that this is just me practicing my art, and it's okay to do it in front of people." Presenting dance outside of a theater in a different context yielded some unexpected feedback from visitors. "People told me that they felt like they could see the shapes of what I was doing in the landscape, which was cool, because I was just doing a normal barre."

In the afternoons, Longoria would often hike the trails in uniform. "I got to learn a lot about Zion because people would ask me questions," she says. Aside from typical chores like laundry and cooking, Longoria filled the rest of her time with letter writing (as a way to keep in touch with family and friends without cell service), journaling about the experience and sewing a prototype of a costume for an upcoming ballet.

In exchange for the residency, all artists have to donate a work of art to the park. Longoria chose to choreograph an evening-length ballet, set to premiere in 2020 both in Salt Lake City and in or near Zion National Park. She's collaborating with four local music groups on the projects and says, "I probably will send them excerpts from my journals, so they can see what it was like for me there."

While Longoria was lucky to spend a month at a national park, she believes that all dancers can benefit from time outside of the studio. "The connection with nature is really important for humans, in general. I think that in our day-to-day lives we are pretty disconnected from our land because we have a lot of comforts—we have houses with air conditioning and heating and we drive from place to place and we are looking at our screens a lot. I think it's really important for us to remember that we, too, are also natural. We're a part of this earth."

Longoria, with long brown hair and a tan dress, blends in with her rocky background, dancing with arms raised.

Longoria onsite at Zion National Park

Jenna Pullen/Flint and Feather Photography, Courtesy Longoria

"I feel like during my formative years," she says, "without realizing it, I was trying to be some other dancer or the picture of a dancer or thinking I needed to be a certain way. But I think that the art, and maybe also the technique, loses something when the artist isn't fully himself or herself. Being in nature, you realize that you are part of nature. Nature, it's not trying to be anything else. Realizing that can really help a dancer understand that being themself is the truest they can be."

Longoria believes that authenticity translates to audiences, too. "I think audiences can be impressed with feats of technique and precision, but it isn't going to bring meaning to their lives unless there's humanity and generosity behind it. Nature doesn't care what people think about it—it just is, and it's beautiful. That's what we human dancers can learn from 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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