The Turning Point

As told to Amy Brandt

 

Many pre-professional dancers think attending college after high school is unnecessary—that it wastes precious professional years. But between the intense training schedules, choreographic opportunities and academic offerings, college dance programs can actually be springboards to a future career. Some dancers choose college to further their training, while others crave the intellectual challenges. Along the way, their experiences may help strengthen their goals, open new doors or change the direction of their careers. Pointe spoke with six dance majors about their individual paths and moments of discovery during their college experience.

 

Nasira Burkholder

Senior, University of Arizona


My parents pushed me to pursue a college degree. I was deva­stated, because I was in the professional division at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School and college was not part of my plan. I expected ballet would become a secondary part of my life, but during my freshman year I was taking two ballet classes a day and a jazz class, then rehearsing all night. It’s like being in a professional company—we do about 60 performances a season. I also didn’t expect to take such a strong interest in academics, but I decided to double-major in nutritional sciences. It’s not easy balancing 25 units a semester, but I don’t regret it.

 

I’ll never forget my first ballet class here. I felt really challenged and saw several dancers who were going to push me to improve. Seeing the competition made me realize what I was getting into and I thought, “Wow.” I called my parents that night and thanked them for forcing me to give it a chance.

 

 

Jordanne Lackmann

Senior, University of Utah

 

I didn’t start focusing on ballet until high school, so I wasn’t ready to audition for companies. I chose the U because they have a specific ballet degree, and I hoped to get better training. I’m in the highest level, called Utah Ballet, which is the resident ballet company. I’m also in a character company. We get to travel—we went to Russia for a character workshop and to Spain to learn Basque dancing.

 

During my time here my technique and pointework have gotten stronger and my ideas of ballet have expanded. I’ve learned about dance history and teaching philosophies. I’ve also learned not to look at a professional career as unattainable. With hard work you can achieve anything, no matter where you trained.

 

 

Kathleen Martin

Sophomore, Point Park University

 

I auditioned for companies and was offered an unpaid position, but I chose school because I wanted a more secure environment.  Because the dance program is so intense, I wasn’t sure if it would allow time for a social life. But I have both an active social life and a dedicated dance life. Most kids at Point Park are dancers, singers or acting majors, so we all get it. Sometimes it’s hard when friends are out partying and you have to focus on your diet and getting enough rest. But it’s worth it to me.

 

The faculty here is very diverse, so you get different perspectives on dance and how to go about your career. And the department teaches a variety of techniques. My goal now is to dance with a ballet company that also does contemporary works. 

 

 

Colleen Barnes

Senior, University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music

 

I wanted a more thorough, intellectual exploration of dance. That meant going to college, because you discuss dance, take dance history and learn about all the things related to it—you can really explore it. I didn’t realize how much I’d learn and how the
qua­lity of my movement would improve.

 

CCM provides so many opportunities that I didn’t expect. I’m spending the fall semester teaching in southeast China. What a great learning experience! Others have accepted traineeships with Cincinnati Ballet and Louisville Ballet and take correspondence classes. CCM is flexible about helping you work towards a degree.

 

I’ve had so many lightbulb moments of “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” My biggest epiphany was realizing that dance is connected to everything; it’s the root of human experience.

 

 

Ben Delony

Senior, Indiana University

 

I chose college because I wasn’t ready to audition and wanted four more years of solid training. IU’s ballet department has definitely delivered. There’s a great sense of discipline and ensemble, and we have to work for roles. We’re at the studio all afternoon, so balancing homework with classes and getting enough sleep has been interesting. The structure reflects our progress—the teachers e-mail our schedules to us the night before—so we’re always on our toes.

 

During my sophomore year I realized I don’t really have a ballet body—I’m 5’8”, without any hyperextension and don’t seem to match the other men in the program. I decided to find another avenue of dance. Last year when I did a huge independent collaboration with an IU cellist, it turned me on to more avant-garde styles of dance. It was disappointing to realize you have to fit a mold in classical ballet, that it can’t be all heart. But I got over it when I realized that dance has many roads to choose from.

 

 

Gabrielle Salvatto

Junior, The Juilliard School

 

Although I’d gone to the School of American Ballet for nine years, I wanted to become more versatile rather than a strict ballet dancer. Juilliard’s hype definitely intimidated me, but it’s not really a typical college experience. People aren’t partying all the time because they can’t ruin their vocal chords, or they have to get up early to stretch. Everyone has the same goals, so the environment is a lot friendlier.

 

A big turning point for me was working with Ohad Naharin. I expected him to be intimidating, but he was really inspiring. He promotes individuality among dancers, and most of what we worked on was our own improvisation. He’d smile and say, “That’s great! Work on that for another eight counts.” He opened my eyes to the dance world outside what I’d known before.

 

 

Dance Or Study?
By Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch

 

For some dancers, a professional career is a clearly defined dream. But not every dancer follows a direct path to the corps; for some, the way is a winding road of second guesses and outside interests.

 

I fell in love with ballet at a small summer intensive in West Virginia when I was 13. But as I grew more dedicated to my training over the next few years, I questioned whether I wanted or could have a career. Because of my late start, I was filled with doubt about my ability to catch up. Furthermore, I had a hungering interest in academics—an area in which I felt far more confident—and I knew that I wanted to study writing and international relations.

So, I kept my options open. I graduated high school at 17, giving myself a “gap year.” However, when I received a generous scholarship to my college of choice, Bard College, suddenly my decision became very real—and very difficult.

 

While my parents expect me to one day hold an advanced degree, they believe that the life lessons I can learn from ballet will only better prepare me for college. For myself, I’ve felt that I should pursue ballet until this path ends, or I’m ready to turn my focus elsewhere. After considerable thought, I deferred enrollment for a year to study at the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York.

 

After an extraordinary year, I approached Bard to ask for an unusual second year of deferral, and the college supported me. An unexpected door had opened: I was invited into Tulsa Ballet’s second company. Next spring when my year with Tulsa Ballet II is up, I will again examine whether ballet is challenging me to grow, and then I will decide whether to con­tinue working toward a professional career.

 

Looking back, I realize that the beauty in my own journey has been its focus on the process. I’ve been fortunate to study something that fascinates and challenges me. While I’ve provided myself with options for furthering my studies, for now I’ve chosen ballet, and I am eager to see where the adventure leads.

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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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