Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

The Case For Studying a Different Style of Ballet This Summer

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.


Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.


Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

Let Curiosity Be Your Guide

Whether it's Bournonville, French or Balanchine, every methodology has its own aesthetic, movement quality and areas of emphasis. Most dancers find that there's one in particular that appeals to or suits them best. McAdoo's admiration of New York City Ballet's dancers made her want to study at the school that trained them, but another dancer might love the expressive port de bras of The Royal Ballet's dancers, or the Vaganova method's power and purity.

One thing is certain—don't let an unfamiliar style deter you from auditioning for a school's intensive. While some academies prioritize accepting students trained in their method, most don't. “We don't look for students who've had Balanchine training previously at all," says Kay Mazzo, SAB's co-chairman of faculty. She notes that most of its summer students are brand-new to Balanchine technique. Similarly, at Sarasota Ballet's Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, two out of three intensive students are unfamiliar with what principal Christopher Hird calls the “English style" (a hybrid of Russian, Italian and French influences that result in seamlessly clean footwork and eloquent port de bras).

“One of the benefits of a summer program is being exposed to a different way of dancing," says conservatory director Margaret Barbieri. “The dancers are learning to adapt to whatever is required of them that day, which is an important skill to instill in a student—they will need it as a professional."

Mazzo says students should start investigating all their options early. “It's important that when they're still 12 to 14 years old they look around at different styles, schools and companies, to see what's out there. Because by the time they're 15 or 16, they should know what's right for their body, what they like and what fits well for them."

What to Expect

Venturing into a new way of dancing can be confusing at first. An overload of information, from the way combinations are presented to different terminology, can make you feel like a beginner again. Last summer, 16-year-old Sofia Yarbrough struggled to make sense of the specific ways the teachers wanted her to hold her head and arms at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. Everything, from the language the Russian teachers spoke to the way frappés were done, was different from her home studio, the Ballet Center of Fort Worth. “At first, I felt like a fish out of water," she says. But soon the new technique took hold in her body. “By the fourth week, the coordination started to make sense and feel normal."


Sofia Yarbrough in class with Cyril Pierre. Photo by Paolo Galli, Courtesy Kirov Academy.

Mazzo knows how hard it is for students to grasp SAB's trademark speed, attack, musicality and, for the advanced girls, taking every class on pointe. She counsels being patient. “We tell them on the first day, 'Don't be too hard on yourself,' because this might be 100 percent different from what you've been taught. Take it one day at a time, and work on one new thing at a time."

It's also important to remember that what you already know is not invalid, and the basic concepts of technique carry across all styles. Alexandros Pappajohn, now a member of The Washington Ballet Studio Company, spent a summer at the Paris Opéra Ballet School when he was 15. “It was definitely a big change," says Pappajohn, then a student at Ballet Academy East. Keeping an open mind helped him adopt the school's emphasis on clean, fast footwork and épaulement. He admits it was hard to break ingrained habits (like how to prepare before combinations), but otherwise found adjusting to the French classes surprisingly easy. “Ballet is ballet. You always have to straighten your knees and point your feet. If you have good, solid technique, you can go other places and it's not a shock to your system."


SAB co-chairman of faculty Kay Mazzo leading class. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy SAB.

Developing Versatility

Being able to do steps differently from class to class, according to what each teacher wants, helps develop versatility—a skill professional dancers need when adapting to choreographers' eclectic movement styles.

“We instill in students that even if they don't agree with one thing or another, they should soak up everything like a sponge," says Barbieri. Last summer, students were able to watch Sarasota Ballet dancers rehearse Sir Frederick Ashton's repertoire to see the intricacies of his style at work. “If they want to be professional, they have to incorporate different styles, and know that Balanchine requires steps to be done differently than Ashton. It also helps them learn what sort of repertoire they want to dance."

After her summer experience, Yarbrough loved the Vaganova method so much that she decided to remain at the Kirov Academy year-round. But whether studying a different style leads you on a new path or not, exposure to the many unique disciplines of ballet is an invaluable part of becoming a strong, versatile dancer. While it's challenging to learn something new, Kirov Academy co-artistic director Adrienne Dellas Thornton notes that students are capable of more than they may think. “Young dancers pick up the nuances of other techniques so quickly. They don't have to fear losing something by learning a new method—it is part of the adventure of dance."

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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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