The Truth About Trainee Programs

When Kimberly Braylock saw San Francisco Ballet perform three years ago, she decided it was the company for her. She auditioned for the SFB summer intensive, then joined the school at age 17, with her eyes set on a place in the corps.

Although she didn’t get the company position she’d been hoping for at the end of the school year, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson offered her instead a spot in the SFB School Trainee program. Despite her disappointment, she accepted. “I realized how intense the trainee program is, and decided it would be a good way for me to improve as much as I could before getting into a company,” says Braylock.

Increasingly, company directors are looking not just for talented dancers, but also for professional behavior and experience. Similar to second companies and apprenticeships, a trainee program bridges the gap from classroom student to stage-ready artist, with one major catch: Trainees are unsalaried and pay yearly tuition, generally around $4,000 per year. But with professional performance opportunities and career guidance, traineeships can be helpful for dancers who feel they need an extra year before auditioning to join a company full time.

The Technical Trainee

At first, some students turn their noses up at a trainee offer, since tuition is expensive and many want to start auditioning. “I am ready to work!” or “I want to perform!” are common responses, thanks to an outdated perception that female ballerinas must start their careers by age 18. Yet a traineeship offers more than just an extra year as a student.

Although trainee programs vary slightly from company to company, all require a level of daily focus more intense than advanced school levels. “Trainees are held to a higher standard because they all desire to be professionals,” explains Kathleen Mitchell, Boston Ballet School faculty member.  

Directors invite students ages 16 to 20—although age limits vary—who are finished with high school or are completing it through correspondence. Trainee programs associated with companies like Boston Ballet, Ballet Austin, SFB and The Joffrey Ballet (a new program starting this fall) average 25 to 30 hours in five or six days per week. Students take daily ballet, pointe and pas de deux classes, as well as men’s technique, modern, jazz and character. Most programs offer body conditioning through Pilates, Gyrokinesis or strength training. Trainee classes are kept small, 15 to 20 students a year, to focus on individual attention and growth.

“I teach slightly faster and more detailed than at the school level,” explains Margaret Tracey, associate director of Boston Ballet School. “What really separates the program is the time we spend giving personal feedback.”

Dancing With Pros

Trainees are encouraged to observe rehearsal, and, in some programs, they get to take company class. “I was terrified I’d stand in a soloist’s spot, so I lingered until everyone settled,” says BB trainee Patrick Yocum. “I could see their work ethic, but I realized the company attitude is more relaxed—like a big family.” Seeing the profession inside-out allows trainees to peel away the mystery from their dream company. “Everyone starts with pliés and tendus in the morning, no matter what role they performed last night,” says Mitchell.

Traineeships often cover basic corps de ballet skills: picking up material quickly, observing other dancers’ style and timing, and staying true to formations. “I learned to adapt to many spots within the corps, so if someone gets injured I can jump into different counts and spacing,” says Braylock. Twenty-year-old Jaclyn Oakley, a second-year trainee with BB, discovered one of the most difficult aspects of the profession. “I never had to remember and rehearse several shows at the same time before,” she says. “You have to know your steps or else you will get run over!”
The most attractive feature of joining a company trainee program is performing in main stage productions. Nearly all trainees perform in The Nutcracker, sometimes as rats and soldiers, party parents or even filling corps spots in snow and flowers. At SFB, trainees performed in Swan Lake this year, while at BB they have danced in The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. The trainees don’t get a paycheck for performances, but, as Mitchell says, “The experience is the pay!”   

Although trainees may learn company roles, they are still students within an education process. Specific dress code is observed at all times, so trainees are visible to teachers and directors. “During rehearsals, I felt comfortable being able to ask questions about choreography, and a company member helped me with a tough part by showing me what she learned,” says Elisa Pekarek, a 20-year-old BA trainee. Trainees also have their own repertory performances, and dance in outreach programs throughout the year.

Beyond The Studio

Trainees are also taught basic life skills, so they are not overwhelmed when thrown into professional adulthood. “A lot of artistic potential is lost if you are distracted as a person,” says Michelle Martin, associate artistic director of Ballet Austin. Workshops on budgeting, filing taxes and becoming established in a new city help smooth the transition. An official peer mentoring program gives BA trainees a chance to ask burning questions, mostly about finding jobs and the right company for them.

Dance classes are often enhanced by behind-the-scenes workshops. SFB provides seminars on costumes, lighting, stage managing, teaching and choreography. Some programs urge dancers to find a part-time job or enroll in college courses. Pekarek is currently a swim instructor, getting certified in Pilates and a junior in college. “We encourage our dancers to feed their minds in other ways,” says Martin. “See where dance fits into their life, instead of dance becoming their whole life.”

A Career Investment

Whether a young dancer is having difficulty landing a professional job, doesn’t feel ready to go pro or wants a foot in the door of their favorite company, joining a trainee program can be a smart career move. Pekarek was invited to join Ballet Austin II during her second year as a trainee. “After high school I wasn’t sure if dancing was a reality for me. But I took a risk, and I know this is where I want to be.”

Other trainee alumni are showing up in major companies across the country. This year alone, two men and four women from SFB’s trainee class are joining the company. “I was invited to be an apprentice after our Swan Lake performances, and I cried!” exclaims Braylock. “It was my dream to join this company, and I still can’t believe I made it.”

Jen Peters is a writer in NYC who dances with Jennifer Muller/The Works.

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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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