Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

Why It's Never Too Early to Start Prepping for Your Summer Intensive

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:


It's December—what should students do to start planning for summer intensives now?

"All of the auditions are going to happen in January and early February, so they should do their research to find out where the schools they're interested in are going to be and put together a plan. Don't just show up at random auditions and do the research after. With most places you're going to have 7-10 days to commit before you lose the spot."

What's your take on the train at home vs. train away question?

"That's a controversial discussion. Some feel that kids need to get out there right away at age 11 and go to as many programs as possible. I'm not in that camp. I believe if you have really good training and you're still on the younger end, stay home. I'm not discouraging younger students from attending a program but it's not as important for them. They need to realize that when you're under 13 your participation in a particular program is not going to make or break your career."

A group of young men taking class. They wear grey tights and white shirts. They are in an attitude at the barre.

Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

And the argument for going away—does that get more important as students get older?

"Certainly! Kids go away for different reasons. It's to compare yourself to other students from other places. It's to get a fresh set of eyes on you to help with some of your training deficiencies. If you're a couple of years out from a company decision, it's much more important to attend a school where a trainee or studio company position is possible. You might attend the summer intensive and maybe they invite you to stay for the full year. It gives the artistic staff the opportunity to work with that student over the course of a longer period to really find out if it's a good fit. It's also important that even if it's not the company of your choice, that the school trains universally, not just in one specific style. Then you're not training for just one company."

What other aspects of a summer program should factor into their decision?

"The city it's located in is important. If you're going to a city that you have no interest in at all, how much fun are you actually going to have that summer? Of course, summer's not just about having fun. But if you're not having a good time outside of the studio, it's going to be difficult to have a good time in the studio. Whether or not there's a demonstration or performance at the end of the summer is another thing. At some programs, the performance has a huge influence on what's done during those five or six weeks. And for me, sometimes that takes over the training side. We do a demonstration, but it's repertoire that we've worked on throughout the summer."

That's what summer is for, right, intense work in the studio?

"Yes. It's to make ballet your sole focus for those five or six weeks. Look at the meat of the program. Is it just a long day or is it a lot of hours in the studio? Some programs say you're there from 9 am to 6 pm, but you're sitting every other hour. Or you're only there from 9am to 2pm and it's straight through. Our kids are here 9 am to 5 pm and they usually only have an hour break."

A partnering class, with two couples in the center of the studio and the rest of the students watching in the back. The young men support the young women in a first arabesque.

Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

Do you see a lot of improvement from beginning to end?

"It depends on the student. In the ones that embrace what they're being taught, we do see a difference. One of the biggest benefits of going away for the summer is going home with inspiration, with motivation to continue the work throughout the year. Students will obviously be corrected on technical issues and perhaps hearing corrections in a different way from a different teacher may turn that lightbulb on."

If there's something specific you're trying to work on as a student, is that something you can target when choosing a summer session?

"The hard thing is you can't always find that out until you get there. When you look on websites all the programs seem to be created equal. So you should really talk to your peers. Most of the kids who have been going to summer intensives have been going for a while. There are lots of message boards out there. Take all of that with a grain of salt, use it as a collective, not just one person's opinion, but that information is out there."

In a school like SPB, does being connected to a prestigious ballet company influence the program?

"It does. We keep our rep consistent with what Angel Corella wants. Guest teachers are great as long as that's not the majority of the teachers. Even though it's only a five-week program for us, we still want to create that consistency in what we're delivering so that they can get the greatest benefit out of it. If it's contradicting every day, then it's five weeks of master classes. And our curriculum definitely reflects what the company is needing. Our summer intensive is also another way we recruit for the full-year program. It allows us to work with kids on the upper end for a five-week period to see how they work."

Should a scholarship offer be a factor?

"There are two different schools of thought on this, that if they offer you a scholarship they're really interested in you, but that's not the case with all schools. Some schools give out a lot of scholarships. Some don't. Just because they don't give you a scholarship doesn't mean they're not as interested. I'm talking partials. If they gave you a full ride and are paying for your housing then yeah, they're interested. But you have to realize that the more scholarships schools give, the larger the class size is, generally."

How big are your class sizes?

"We try to keep it in the 20s. Just because you have a huge studio doesn't mean you throw 50 kids in there. There's only one teacher. You have to get around to each one of those students at least three to four times in a class, which is what I try and tell my staff. Get to each student. Don't just coach the ones you think are going to be principal dancers someday. If you have that many bodies in the room you no longer teach, you just start giving class and my staff always needs to teach."

Any advice for auditioning students?

"When they take the audition, it's important that they show who they are and not try to be who they think the person at the front of the room wants them to be We really want to have an honest assessment of where they are. I don't want them to have their best class that day, I don't want them to have their worst class. I want to see their regular class."

After all this, how do you really figure out what the best program is for you?

"A lot boils down to their gut and that audition class. Was it purely an evaluation or did they try to motivate you? The students made the effort to come, so we have to give that back. It's not just us checking them out, they're checking us out. What they see in the audition is what they're going see when they walk in our door here in Philly."

Latest Posts


Vadim Shultz, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet

Catching Up With Maria Khoreva: The Rising Mariinsky Star on Her TV Competition Win and New Book

The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed down the Mariinsky Ballet's Maria Khoreva. Although Russia's Mariinsky Theater was closed in 2020 from March until August, the 20-year-old first soloist used the time in quarantine to her advantage. She wrote a newly published book titled Teach Me Ballet, and won Best Female Dancer on Russia's hit TV show "Grand Ballet," a competition which brings young ballet dancers from all parts of the country to the national spotlight. (This season, filmed over the summer, was broadcast on Russia's arts channel from November 4 to December 19. All seven episodes are now available on YouTube.)

Pointe spoke with Khoreva to find out more about her experience on the show, her fitness regime during quarantine and her new book.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Karolina Kuras, Courtesy ROH

The Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi Shares Her Go-to Self-Care Ritual and Her Favorite Recipe

Royal Ballet principal Yasmine Naghdi had been gearing up to star as the Sugarplum Fairy in a December livestream performance of The Nutcracker when London went back into heavy COVID-19 restrictions. The performance was canceled, but Naghdi has been taking this current setback, and the challenges the pandemic has brought over the last 10 months, in stride. In addition to keeping up with her training, she's been taking Italian lessons virtually and preparing elaborate meals with her boyfriend ("We're both real foodies," she says). Last fall, Naghdi, who has always loved cooking, travel, design and self-care, decided to share her offstage passions with fans on her new Instagram page, @lifestyle_by_yas.

Naghdi recently talked with us about staying flexible to the UK's lockdown changes and her post-performance wellness routine, plus offered a recipe for her favorite pasta dish.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
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."

Editors' Picks