Maria Kochetkova (Photo by Erik Tomasson)

Too Fat? Too Thin? Too Tall? Too Short?

Interviews by Christopher Blank, Rosie Gaynor and Nancy Wozny

A firestorm of controversy over recent reviews that singled out dancers' bodies for criticism has raised the question of whether body type still matters in today's ballet world. Does ballet's identity rest on presenting a certain image of the ballerina? Pointeasked leading dancers and artistic directors what impact issues like height and weight have on their casting.


Maria Kochetkova
Principal, San Francisco Ballet

When I was 13, I never could be in the first row because I was taller than the others. Then everyone kept growing and I stayed 5′. In Russia, principal roles are never performed by short dancers. It's the fashion of the day. If I were dancing 30 years ago, I would be normal.

At auditions I was told I was too short, but then artistic directors would see me dance and I would get invitations anyway. For years now I have been guesting with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet Theatre and the Mikhailovsky Ballet, dancing all the roles in Giselle and Sleeping Beauty that I was told I would never do. It proves it's not about your height, but how you present yourself in a certain role. The stage is deceiving. It's very hard to tell how tall or short people actually are. At the end of the day, your height is not what determines if you get a job. It's all about your dancing.

Peter Boal
Artistic Director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Body types do change in ballet. As Suzanne Farrell became Balanchine's muse, suddenly longer legs, shorter torsos, long necks and small heads became the aesthetic all the way through to the youngest 8-year-olds auditioning for the School of American Ballet. I remember when I became an SAB faculty member, there was conversation about "Her head's so big!" We were looking for pinheads. Which I suppose accentuates what Balanchine was looking for: length—length of leg, length of arm, length of neck, which goes right through to smaller heads.

This is a profession of athletes; it is a profession where we look so closely at the body. We enjoy looking at the body—healthy, beautiful bodies. Sometimes both the excess and the underweight are unappealing to look at. And I think dancers know that. I think they know when they're in the zone. When they feel like athletes in peak performance condition. And that is the standard of the profession.

Melissa Sandvig
Freelance dancer

When I was 13, a Russian dancer shook his head when he saw me eating a banana, remarking that it had too many calories. I know it was because he wanted to help me. My teacher had told me I needed to watch my body because I have a tendency to be more muscular. I knew there were contemporary companies that would love my build, but my passion was classical ballet.

My first job was with Milwaukee Ballet. The artistic director, Basil Thompson, loved my body and the way I danced. Under him I went quickly from apprentice to corps member. At 19, my body was still not in puberty, so I was advised to take hormones to avoid problems later in life. I did and gained a little weight. By then Michael Pink had come on as artistic director. He put me on weight probation. I was still getting parts, but I could not make the artistic management happy.

It always affected my confidence that I didn't quite fit in. Eventually it led me to take a break from the ballet world. I missed it, but resolved to work for people who appreciated my body. Suddenly I was working more than ever. I was finally embracing my body. Being on So You Think You Can Dance felt like a sweet victory when they called me "The Ballerina."

Paul Vasterling
Artistic Director, Nashville Ballet

Tastes have changed. Back in the 1970s, dancers were super-duper thin. In my opinion, that's less important to our audience. It's not just about weight; it's about extension, proportion, height, all the genetic stuff. There's nothing more exposing of your physique than classical ballet. Ultimately, I want my dancers to look athletic, healthy and muscular. The fact is, women have to be able to be lifted by their partners, and men have to be strong enough to lift the women.

Physical issues are tricky to bring up. You can send someone down a bad psychological path by commenting on his or her weight. My philosophy is not to write people off. There's a lot more room for individuality in regional companies, and there's no specific body type for me. Really good dancers can make you forget that they might not have an ideal body.

Drew JacobyPhoto by Marty Sohl

Drew Jacoby
Jacoby and Pronk

I've always had a love-hate relationship with my height. I liked being tall, but sometimes I wished I weren't 5′ 11". It seems like I have been tall forever. I went to Pacific Northwest Ballet School, where there were a lot of tall dancers, even though I was the tallest. The repertoire really suited my body type. I was certain I was going to get into PNB and was shocked when I didn't. They told me to come back when I was strong enough to be a soloist. I was crushed. But I had met Alonzo King of LINES while at PNB, and he offered me a job.

Alonzo is all about freedom and individuality; also, he tends to like long bodies. So I went from school to working with a choreographer one on one. There was no issue with my height—it was only a good thing. When I stopped trying to fit in, and began being myself and exploiting my difference, my career took off. In the end, it was so much better for my artistic growth.

Dorothy Gunther Pugh
Artistic Director, Ballet Memphis

As an artistic director, I care about how our ballets look. Weight is important. Choreographers, certainly, come in and say, "I will not cast that dancer because he or she is too big." In auditions especially, we all become critics. I have to pare down a group of 350 pretty quickly, and the first thing I determine is which bodies are right for us. It's not just about being too big. I don't want rail-thin people, either. Trying to keep women like little girls is a power move, albeit sometimes not a conscious one. I don't want a company where everyone is the same height or has the same instep. I don't think that's very American. Yet dancers' bodies need to look a certain way to make the kind of pictures we want for classical ballet.

Wendy Whelan
Principal, New York City Ballet

When I was 12, they discovered that I had scoliosis. I wore a brace for about five years. I only took it off to dance and to bathe. Dancing was my release. I became aware of my weaknesses and of my strengths both physically and emotionally. I was well into my professional career when I was first criticized for being too thin, too angular and crooked. It was a shock after I had reached that pinnacle. I have a body where, if I drop a few pounds, it shows a lot. I wasn't trying to lose weight, but when you work hard during the season, you do. I felt defenseless. Even now, it can still feel harsh when a critic remarks on my "physicality" as a flaw in my dancing, because of all the effort I put into my body. It's my own personal house of cards, a serious work of art that I've spent decades building. It's truly not something I could or would ever change. Although a negative criticism will certainly sting, I don't dwell on it. I try to remind myself that nobody has a perfect body and no dancer is a perfect dancer. True beauty lies within each of us to create for ourselves the best we can with what we have been given.


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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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