An instructor from The Hive in Chicago leads class over Zoom (courtesy The Hive)

The Dance Student's Guide to Making the Best—and the Most—of At-Home Training

If you're social distancing to do your part to slow the spread of COVID-19, you've inevitably realized that training safely and successfully at home poses a significant challenge. We talked to dance experts to find out how you can make the best of this less-than-ideal scenario—and about the unexpected ways it can help you grow as a dancer and artist.


Create a Smart and Considerate Dance Space

If you don't have a built-in dance space at home—and most of us don't!—you'll need to get creative to set up your makeshift studio. Clear as much open floor as possible, whether that means pushing your bedroom furniture to one wall or moving your dining room table to the living room (and moving it back when you're done, of course). Avoid dancing on tile and cement floors if you can; those hard, slippery surfaces do your joints zero favors. But if they're all you have to work with, Monique DeLuca, a physical therapist and performing arts fellow at Johns Hopkins Hospital, suggests wearing sneakers if possible while doing high-impact dancing.

And don't forget about the backyard, if you're lucky enough to have one. DeLuca says going outside to dance or exercise might be better than jumping on concrete in the basement. Just double-check beforehand to make sure it's a level surface—watch out for holes, divots, roots, or anything you could roll an ankle on.

Tap Online Resources

First things first: If your dance school is hosting online classes, they're your best bet by far. Following your own teachers' plan is the most surefire route to success when training at home, since they know you and your technique needs better than anyone.

If your studio doesn't have virtual classes—or if you want to sprinkle in some extra classes to keep that technique up—it's worth looking into the options that many renowned schools, including Juilliard, and dozens of professionals are offering online for free. And if you'd like something a little more structured, there are also online training services like Veyette Virtual Ballet School or STEEZY to check out.

A Hive instructor corrects a student over Zoom (courtesy The Hive)

Expand Your Horizons

The many online options available right now present unique opportunities. Under normal circumstances, how many chances would you have to take a virtual barre from one of your dance idols? Or an IG Live class from that choreographer on the other side of the country that you're obsessed with? When it comes to access, "It's kind of an even playing field in the dance world right now," says Seth Robinson, owner of The Hive studio in Chicago.

The anonymity of at-home training can be isolating, but it can also be freeing. Nobody's watching you, so why not try a completely unfamiliar dance style? "Right now, you can dive in behind a screen and work on styles that you might not feel as fluid in," Robinson says. "It's so important for dancers to realize that those opportunities are in front of them right now."

Track Your Progress

Dancers are used to constant group interaction, to hands-on corrections, and to the communal nature of class, which means training at home can feel like training in a vacuum. But even when your teacher isn't there to hold you accountable, it's essential that you continue to track your own progress. Otherwise, your technique will slide—quickly.

Make your phone camera your best friend (as if it weren't already). Robinson suggests filming yourself every day during this remote training period. It can be as simple as setting your phone on a chair opposite you, hitting record, going through your daily barre, and then analyzing the footage each day. What mistakes are you making repeatedly? What bad habits need to be rooted out? Seeing yourself the way your teacher sees you might actually help you figure out why she was giving you those same corrections over and over again in the studio.

Take Care of Your Body

The bad news: You probably won't be able to do a full grand allegro safely at home. The good news: This period of relative quiet is a good time to build a cross-training routine that will make you a stronger technician once you're back in the studio, and help you avoid future injuries.

"Right now is an especially important time to be aware of overall health and wellness," DeLuca says. Some of the most common issues she sees when treating dance patients stem from hip and core weakness. "I'd suggest working on hip strength, core strength, ankle stability, balance—all those things that you can do in a little bit of space, that don't require a lot of movement," she says.

DeLuca recommends strength and conditioning up to three times a week, including low-impact cardio like biking, if possible. Use your imagination to find substitutes for the equipment you might be lacking. Need to do your foot exercises, for example, but don't have a Theraband at home? Robinson has a hack for that: "A basic dish towel or a washcloth will add some resistance." And make sure you're eating well and sleeping, since those factors can play a role in future injuries, too.

Zoom class at The Hive (courtesy The Hive)

Get Others Involved

Missing the dance family right about now? Make time to virtually connect with them, whether that means hopping on a Zoom class with your bestie or FaceTiming with your duet partner while you both take a virtual class. Better yet, rope your real family into learning whatever you're working on—even if they're not exactly dance pros.

"Get your parents involved, get your brothers and sisters involved," Robinson says. "Because they're going through the same hardships, and they're going through the same feelings of missed energy and missed connections." Dance it out together. It'll be good for everyone's physical and mental health.

Look for the Silver Linings

This new normal probably feels weird. And you're probably daydreaming—a lot—about heading back to the studio. But remember that you'll get out of this time what you put into it. It's a chance to take responsibility for your own training—and learning how to do that will serve every dancer well in the long term.

"Everybody has the chance to soak up as much as they want. Everybody has the chance to diversify," Robinson says. "What a perfect opportunity to fill your cup with things that you know bring you personal joy."

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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."

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