Student Annie Smith taking CPYB's summer program from home. Photo courtesy CPYB

7 Ways to Ace Your Online Summer Program Audition

These days, virtual auditions are our new reality. While summer intensive veterans may have polished their in-person audition strategy over the years, Zoom is an entirely different animal. How should you prep your space? What if your technology glitches? What type of energy works on suboptimal webcams? It's enough to make anyone sweat.

Prep Your Space

For the first time, you get to decide what your audition space looks like. Whether you have the luxury of booking a studio or you're making due with your kitchen floor, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

Make sure your "stage" is clear of obstructions that might impede your movement, then declutter the area behind you so it's free of distractions that could draw the judges' eyes away from your lines. "Do a test run before the audition with a friend or family member to make sure your feet or hands aren't cut off," says Melanie Person, co-director of The Ailey School. Have them help you find where your spatial limits are in the frame, then take tape and mark those spots on the floor.

Light Yourself Strategically

Next, identify your light source. When reigning Dance Awards "Female Senior Best Dancer" Kelis Robinson auditioned for her title via Zoom, she used a room at her studio with natural light. "You want to be seen as clearly as possible," she says. "Extra space doesn't matter if they can't make out your movement." For spaces without natural light, Person suggests getting a ring light to lessen shadows and distribute light more evenly.

"You want your light to hit in front of your face, not behind it," adds Darla Hoover, artistic director of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and Ballet Academy East. "You don't want to be a silhouette." Practice on camera ahead of your audition to be sure the light doesn't change as you travel around the room.

Manage the Technology

Auditioning online can produce some unique challenges. Devices are generally very small, forcing you to approach the camera to get a better view of the instructor. To avoid cutting off your body, or distracting the class with a close-up of your eye, The Dance Awards "Male Senior Best Dancer" Joziah German recommends connecting your device to a larger TV or computer screen whenever possible. (This could also connect to a larger speaker system, making music dynamics easier to hear.)

Video's greatest challenge for dancers is the unavoidable lag in audio. Using the best Wi-Fi connection possible can help. "Make sure you're close to a router," Robinson says. Still, you may lose connection from time to time. During her audition, Robinson's music stopped, forcing her to move in silence until the internet reconnected. Her advice for when things like this happen? "The circumstances have shifted, and most judges will be understanding about mishaps," Robinson says. "Don't stress out too much." Hoover echoes this sentiment. "Because we have never auditioned dancers this way before, we are just as nervous as you are," she says.

When it comes to technology hurdles you can control, Hoover recommends joining your audition well before it officially begins. And use a recording device with a high-quality lens—if the camera quality on your laptop is grainy, borrow a better computer if you can.

Amp Up Your Energy

So what kind of movement stands out on screen? Since the camera sucks out a portion of your energy, German suggests dancing beyond what would normally be appropriate. Within the space you have available, travel and take up as much room as possible. According to Person, that's exactly what you need to stand out on a screen that hosts multiple dancers at a time. "As a panelist, my eyes will be drawn to the dancers who are projecting."

Dress for the Occasion

When it comes to your outfit, think about your setting. "Choose a color that contrasts with your background, otherwise you'll be camouflaged," says Robinson.

Know Your Angles

Virtual auditions have some unexpected perks, like using camera positioning to show the panel your best angles. "As a shorter dancer, the last thing I want to do is angle myself to seem even shorter," German says. "You should keep the camera center, so your whole body is proportional." Hoover discourages setting your device on the floor or too high above you on a shelf. "Set your device at eye level," she says. "Otherwise it's really difficult to observe you. At our year-round program's online audition, I kept looking at pictures of dancers to get a better idea of what I was actually seeing."

Keep in mind that Zoom boxes are fairly small—avoid putting the camera too far away from you, making yourself even harder to see. When you're auditioning at the barre, Hoover recommends turning it to a 45-degree angle rather than facing straight forward or directly side. "This way we get the best of both worlds," she says. Practice your camera angles ahead of time, so that you don't have to adjust mid-audition.

​Stay Present

Whether you're on deck or you've just finished a combination, waiting on-screen can feel awkward. "Stand still, and stay as present as you can unless they tell you to turn off your camera," Robinson says. Person recommends imagining you're in the wings: "Stand poised, while paying attention and focusing on the task at hand."

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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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