The Pros on Class

Daily class may feel like the proverbial grind—like eating your vegetables before you get to the good stuff. But professionals know better: Without class, there is no good stuff. Below, six top dancers describe how they make daily class work for them.

Patricia and Jeanette Delgado, Miami City Ballet

As dancers, the Delgado sisters are like night and day. Jeanette is an athletic powerhouse; Patricia is delicate, romantic and lyrical.


But the two share a remarkably similar approach to daily class. Taught almost every day by Artistic Director Edward Villella, the “dancey” 10 am session is mandatory, they say, but that’s for the better. “It’s nice. It connects the company,” Jeanette explains. “You inspire each other.”


Each turns to Gyrokinesis and yoga to warm up, and has gradually learned to take class more thoughtfully and carefully to protect themselves from injury. They also both shed their leg warmers early on. “I make sure I take off all my junk,” Patricia says. “I know my feet are not as articulated as they could be when I can’t see them.”


Both say their goals in class are pegged to the season. “If it’s a light day,” Patricia says, “I try to push myself really hard, define my legs, do combinations more than once to get my heart rate going, get into shape, build stamina and strength.” Before a performance, they often work on role-specific technique issues. Jeanette focused on quick feet and light legs for a week in class before she performed Balanchine’s Square Dance. When there’s a matinee, Patricia likes to do each exercise in her character’s mind frame. “I take class as Juliet if we’re doing Romeo and Juliet,” she says.


Apparently unaffected by even a touch of sibling rivalry, each is quick to point out the other’s strong work ethic. But for all their likenesses, the two are not identical. Patricia likes to stand in the front, near Villella, where she can pick up the combinations and not be distracted. Jeanette’s favorite spot?  Next to the piano. “Our pianist, Francisco, is very attentive,” she says. “He keeps you focused on the music. There’s so much to think about, sometimes you forget what’s most important—dancing to the music.”

Katita Waldo, San Francisco Ballet

When she first came to SFB, Katita Waldo was notorious for avoiding class. “I hated it!” she recalls. “I was lazy.”


Since then, her approach has changed dramatically. “I started to enjoy the process of checking in with my body every day,” she says. Now Waldo feels like she can hardly dance without taking class. “It’s like medicine,” she explains. “You take your medicine and then you’re prepared for the rest of the day.”


A fan of “bigger, fuller” movement, Waldo enjoys taking men’s class. She also only wears her pointe shoes for the first three or four exercises at the barre. “If you never wear anything but pointe shoes,” she says, “you never get used to dancing any other way. But I feel like beginning on pointe warms up my feet faster.” When Waldo knows she’ll be performing a piece that requires a specific skill, she uses class time to focus on that technique. To prepare for her debut in Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons earlier this year, for example, during barre and center she worked on articulating her feet and moving with control—“not my forte.”


When Waldo was younger, class was mostly about showing the teacher what she could do. Now, it’s more personal. With maturity—and injuries—came “hyper” self-awareness and a desire to better educate herself.  “Class is a constant exploration of how to use my muscles better and improve,” she says. “Constant.”

Irina Dvorovenko, American Ballet Theatre

ABT principal Irina Dvorovenko cannot overstate the importance of daily class. “Class is your alphabet,” she explains. “In ballet, we tell stories. Without the alphabet, you cannot tell a story.”


Dvorovenko tends to treat class like a mini-performance. When she was working on a new role in Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante last May, she tweaked class combinations so that they echoed Balanchine’s choreography. “It’s like putting beads on a chain,” she says. “Each class makes a difference. You have a whole collection in the end.”


For feedback in class, she turns to husband and fellow ABT principal Maxim Beloserkovsky. Each critiques the other in Russian—which sometimes leads to animated in-class arguments. But in the end, Dvorovenko says, it’s for the best. “We need to keep an eye on each other,” she explains. “If somebody isn’t paying attention, you get dust on you.”

Ariana Lallone, Pacific Northwest Ballet
After 22 years at PNB, Ariana Lallone knows the importance of class, thanks to early teachers Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. And as long as she’s dancing, Lallone says, she needs guidance. “I still want to work on my pirouettes, fouettés, jumping or the way the feet are articulated—whatever the class is working on. I have to be able to grow and change,” she says.


Lallone, who arrives 45 minutes early to tape her toes and stretch, generally does the entire class on pointe, although she will sometimes do a few barre exercises in flat shoes to work through her feet. “When I came to PNB’s school a number of years ago, all of the classes were on pointe,” she says. “I adapted to that and have done it ever since.”

While her approach to class hasn’t changed since her student days, she’s learned what her body can take—when she can push through, and when she should rein herself in. “It’s important to know your limitations,” she says.

Xiao Nan Yu, The National Ballet of Canada
Unlike many dancers, Xiao Nan Yu never holds back in class to save energy—even if she’s rehearsing or performing later in the day. “I need to go full out,” she says. “I find the less I do in class, the less I do onstage.”


To wake up her core muscles, Yu begins her pre-class warm-up with the Pilates 100. She then works on turnout, loosens up her feet and, just before class, stretches her hamstrings, back and glutes. Occasionally she alters her routine if she’s working on something specific.


“There are things I work on in class all the time,” she says. “You know your weaknesses.” That’s not to say that she finds class dull. “Every day is a challenge. From the tips of your fingers to the tips of your toes, you can always find a challenge for your body. That’s what makes class so interesting.”

Susan Chitwood has an MS in journalism from Columbia University.





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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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