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Yes, You Can Take a Day Off: The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Rest

I graduated from college in May with my dance degree. After taking ballet and other dance classes every day for the past four years, I was unsure how to manage my training on my own during a pandemic. Sometimes the last thing I want to do is take a virtual ballet class in my tiny New York City apartment. But then I see my friends posting videos of themselves in Zoom class to Instagram, and I feel guilty. Am I allowed to take a day off from technique classes?

Most dancers struggle with giving themselves a break. And in the midst of COVID-19, you may feel the need to take an overwhelming amount of Zoom classes so that your technique doesn't fall behind. Soon enough, lines start to blur; when your living room is your dance studio, when do you ever stop training? Ultimately, the hours of daily dance classes and supplemental workouts may lead to mental burnout or even physical injury. To prevent this, dancers need to make sure they're getting both physical and mental rest.

What happens to our bodies when we don't rest?

Loading up on extra classes at home could be doing more harm to your body than good. Dr. Emily Becker, a physical therapist and owner of Rocky Mountain Dance Injury Prevention and Symposium, stresses that limited space and bad floors can lead to injuries, especially with overuse. Classes created for smaller spaces offer fewer options for movement; therefore, dancers tend to use the same muscles over and over. Without proper rest, these muscles can quickly become over-stressed.

Your body mechanics can also change. In the first stages of burnout, Becker explains, your resting heart rate increases by five to 10 beats per minute, even when doing simple activities. A higher heart rate increases the concentration of lactic acid in your muscles, leading to more soreness.

A teenage ballet student in a navy blue leotard and tutu rests on a bed with her eyes closed and hands on her stomach.

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Without proper physical rest, the body can't go into supercompensation, the process that allows the muscles to adapt and your technique to improve. Becker says, "In order to get our bodies stronger, better, faster, we have to make sure that you're taking time off and actually resting. Otherwise, you don't have a linear progression to that supercompensation state."

So, how long does it take for the body to recover from training? While it depends on the dancer, bones take roughly 96 hours to recover, while tendons and ligaments take 72 hours. This is why most weight lifters typically separate different muscle groups in their training, to allow for some parts of the body to recover while working on others. Becker suggests that mature dancers in a rigorous college or conservatory program focus on a different area of class each day, varying their level of intensity. For example, if you did petit allégro yesterday, it might be best to substitute jumps for relevés today, or focus more on the port de bras. And for younger dancers training five to six days a week, those one to two days without class should really be time to let the body recover.

How does lack of rest affect our psyche?

Social media makes it easy to constantly compare our work ethic to our peers'. You may fear that breaks from dance class, even for just a day, will cause your technique to fall behind. Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist and professor at Emory University, advises dancers to "focus inward, not just outward, and decide 'What do I need to do for myself?' Just because somebody is posting on Instagram every day, we don't really know what that means."

Giving yourself permission to physically rest is only half the battle; you also have to let your brain not think about dance for a moment, says Dr. Brian Goonan, a psychologist based in Houston, Texas. "If all you're doing is going out and practicing, practicing, practicing, you're really not giving your body the opportunity to synthesize what it's learning," Goonan explains. Your brain needs mental rest in order to absorb material and corrections.

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Overtraining can quickly lead to mental burnout. Goonan notes that one psychological warning sign of burnout is feeling on edge before, during or after a dance class. Other signs, Kaslow adds, include making uncharacteristic mistakes, experiencing a lot of self-doubt, feeling unmotivated, or not enjoying or feeling a sense of accomplishment about dancing.

How can we rest?

Everyone needs at least one day of total passive rest, says Becker. Furthermore, if your body is sore and tired, pushing it to be active can cause burnout. "The body has an alarm system," she says. "That pain or fatigue is telling you that you need a break."

Resting doesn't always have to mean sitting on the couch, snacks in hand. "It does mean you get your eight to 10 hours of sleep and you eat the right way," says Becker. She explains that active rest—going for a walk or cross-training with Pilates, yoga or weight lifting—can be extremely beneficial on days you don't take dance class, as these activities train muscles that may be neglected in class. However, the way you rest depends more on your psychological state than your physical state. If your body feels okay but you are feeling mentally burned out, give yourself a break. All dancers deserve rest, whether they think so or not.

A young athletic woman with gray leggings and her hair in a messy bun bends over her outstretched legs on a yoga mat.

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Kaslow recommends cultivating nondance hobbies, whether they're creative outlets, like music or drawing, or something entirely different, like baking or hiking. Additionally, she suggests that dancers mark in their calendars time for dancing and time for resting, especially when breaks that are usually built in with holidays feel optional when everything is virtual.

Remember, every dancer has distinct needs. "Our energy levels are different, and what's best for us is different," says Kaslow. So even if it seems like no one on Instagram is taking a day off, listen to your body and give it the rest it needs to keep dancing.

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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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