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Sitting Out for the Season: How to Deal When You’re Sidelined by a Long-Term Injury

Jordan Nicole Tilton had always wanted to dance in Balanchine's Apollo, and in her second year with Diablo Ballet she got her chance. But during dress rehearsal, she landed a sissonne wrong, sustaining a catastrophic ankle injury that required surgery and put her out for more than a year. "I was heartbroken," Tilton remembers.

Every dancer will sustain injuries. This is a fact so certain that UK-based dance psychologist Dr. Lucie Clements encourages dancers to mentally prepare by understanding their company's or school's injury procedures before one even occurs. And when you are battling a long-term injury that leaves you out for the season, at least half the fight is mental. But with the correct mind-set and support system in place, you can get through a major injury and come out on the other side stronger.

Explore Other Parts of Your Identity

Clements notes that when she asks a dancer who they are, most reply, unflinchingly, "a dancer." "The biggest challenge of a major injury is the threat to your identity and sense of self," Clements says. Yet it's also an opportunity to cultivate the other parts of who you are. If you're struggling to identify outside interests, says Clements, consider what activities may inspire the same feelings that make you enjoy dance. For example, if you love ballet's artistic expression, you may also like writing or drawing.

For Tilton, who has had recurring ankle injuries throughout her career, time away from dancing has allowed her to cultivate skills she has become deeply passionate about. After a terrible ankle sprain in 2013, while she was in the corps at San Francisco Ballet, she discovered a new passion for refurbishing furniture, which eventually developed into a side business called Rénové́.

Tilton turned the heartbreak of her most recent injury into a podcast called Ballet to Business, interviewing other dancer-entrepreneurs about why they started their companies and how dance has prepared them for life outside the studio. "I had no idea how much I needed to hear people talking about their injuries and hardships, and to hear about what they built during that time."

Tilton in a white dress standing in arabesque onstage holding a scroll.

Jordan Nicole Tilton in Apollo, moments before seriously injuring her ankle

Bilha Sperling, Courtesy Diablo Ballet

Invest in You

Cataclysmic injuries can also be a lesson in self-care, whether that means investing in a strengthening routine or taking an enrichment class. "You think about all the things that are taken away from you," says Tilton.

" 'I can't go to the studio, I can't use my body, I am out of work.' But the one thing that you are given is time."

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Alejandro Diaz had been ignoring pain in his back and ankle for nearly five months. Because he had been newly promoted to principal, Diaz says he put a lot of pressure on himself to maintain his presence within the company. Eventually he succumbed to multiple injuries—a herniated disk, two bulging disks, torn ligaments in his left ankle, a bone spur and a broken cuboid. He was out for nearly a year.

Through his injury rehabilitation Diaz discovered Gyrokinesis, a movement method that focuses on strengthening, stimulating the nervous system and opening energy pathways. "The quality of the conditioning led me to have much greater awareness about the body–mind connection," Diaz says. He was so impressed that he spent his recovery time getting certified to teach it, a four-part process that he will conclude in the fall. "I really believe that this was meant to happen." Diaz pays it forward now by donating his time teaching Gyrokinesis to PBT School's pre-professional students.

When Tilton decided to start her podcast, she enrolled in a web-based course called Power-Up Podcasting to avoid making common rookie mistakes. "It was absolutely worth it," she says.

Diaz jumping in the air in sous sous in an all green unitard

Alejandro Diaz in William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated

Rich Sofranko, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Prioritize Friendships

If a dancer's identity is hit hardest during an injury, their social life is a close second. Being out of the studio also means being away from some of your closest friends and confidants. Clements encourages dancers to stay focused on their most supportive relationships. "The biggest predictor of recovery from any stressful event is the strength of your social group," she says. "Human beings don't generally go through catastrophes alone."

You don't need to force yourself into the studio before you're ready, but make social occasions or even regular chats on the phone with friends a priority. And cultivating relationships with nondancers can help broaden your world beyond ballet.

Talk to Someone Who Will Challenge Your Thinking

Be willing to invest in your mental health just as much as your physical health; negative self-talk, anxiety and even depression can creep in while you navigate a long-term injury. Talking about your fears and frustrations with loved ones can be beneficial, but if you are struggling to get out of a negative mind-set you may want to seek counseling. Speaking to a therapist is helpful, says Clements, because there is no one-size-fits-all antidote to managing mental wellness. For example, journaling may help some dancers identify and root out negative thought patterns, while for others it may cause harmful rumination. "When you seek counseling, you're more likely to feel supported and do the things you need to do to get better," says Clements.

Even in the most difficult circumstances, you'll likely come out of your injury with some meaning attached to the experience. In retrospect, says Diaz, spending so much time recovering and retraining was like "coming home" to his best technique— and has made him a better dancer.

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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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