Boston Ballet's Hannah Bettes. Photo by Ernesto Galan, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

From Competition to Corps de Ballet: For Competitive Dancers Transitioning to Company Life, Mind-Set is Everything

This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Pointe.

At age 15, competition veteran Hannah Bettes traveled to the Prix de Lausanne, her sights set on getting into The Royal Ballet School. The teen left the competition with a scholarship—and the Audience Choice Award, to boot. That same year, Bettes won the gold medal in the senior division at Youth America Grand Prix and the bronze at The Beijing International Dance Invitational, adding to her already impressive resumé of YAGP and World Ballet Competition accolades. Yet by the time she signed a contract with Boston Ballet in 2014, the glamour of the competition stage seemed a distant memory. “Joining a corps de ballet was a huge change," says Bettes. “I'd be lying if I said it was easy."

While most young professionals expect to pay their dues in the corps, the contrast can seem especially stark for dancers emerging from the competition circuit. Beyond adjusting to fewer solo opportunities, they no longer have the personalized attention of a private coach. Furthermore, many start company life with a preexisting fan base, whose high expectations may increase pressure to progress quickly through the ranks. As the accolades and YouTube fame begin to fade away, competition dancers who approach company life with a fresh perspective will ultimately make the most successful transition.


Finding Your Piece of the Puzzle

Alys Shee in class. Photo by Tim Cross, Courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet,

When competing a variation, dancers have certain artistic liberties with regard to expression of character. But corps work is about blending in. "I can't always interpret the movement the way I'd like to artistically, because it will throw everything off," says Bettes. She hasn't found the change discouraging, though. "Sure, I miss having the entire stage to myself," she says. "But the corps is so essential. Without it, no one can see the talent of the principals."

Birmingham Royal Ballet artist Alys Shee, who won medals at the International Ballet Competitions in Helsinki, Moscow, Cape Town and Jackson, as well as the grand prix at the Star of the 21st Century IBC, quickly learned to approach group work practically: To maximize efficiency, corps dancers must commit to a ballet's cohesive picture. "Sometimes, we only have two weeks to pull together a production," says Shee. "If each dancer tries to get her leg a little higher than the one next to her, it's never going to come together."

Joffrey Ballet artist and fellow IBC alum Cara Marie Gary had a somewhat different transition into company life. Because Joffrey doesn't have a traditional hierarchical structure, she was cast simultaneously in soloist and corps roles during her first season. "I'd sharpen my peripheral vision in one piece, then have my moment to shine in another," says Gary. "When you think of big productions as puzzles, you appreciate every single piece."

Becoming Your Own Coach

Gary in Val Caniparoli's Incantations. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

A private coach can feel like a life force to competitive dancers. But most companies won't be able to provide that kind of one-on-one attention to corps members. "It was a shock at first," says Gary, who deeply misses working with coach Vlada Kysselova on a regular basis. "I was so used to relying on her unique eye for detail, and her ability to pinpoint corrections to suit my body."

For Shee, who trained one-on-one with Nadia Veselova Tencer and Evelyn Hart, the toughest aspect of self-coaching is staying motivated in class. "You can't expect anyone else to push you and make you want to come in and work." She finds it helpful to work with a private strength-and-conditioning coach to supplement her training.

Bettes focuses on being especially observant in class. "There are still corrections given, but they're more general," she says. "You have to watch other people, and apply their corrections to yourself." She also finds it helpful to study the principals, to try to distill and apply the distinct qualities that make them great.

And there are unique benefits to less individual attention. Gary, for one, eventually found artistic freedom in the absence of a watchful eye. "By approaching things from within, you explore your own limits and learn to find the nuances that help you develop as a professional artist," she says.

Pressure to Succeed

For many, winning a medal is a sign of future success—a tall order for competition dancers to live up to. In addition, fans often follow competitors' careers with high expectations and vocal opinions. Shee doesn't view this added attention as a negative. "I'd like to think that true ballet lovers wouldn't say anything spiteful about a dancer who encounters obstacles during her career—because they understand how difficult a career it is," she says. "Knowing I have fans out there only inspires me to continue pushing toward my goals."

Bettes found that joining a company helped subdue outside expectations. "Back when videos of my competition performances were constantly being uploaded to YouTube, I felt the need to impress my fans," she remembers. "Now, I focus on the expectations of the artistic staff, the other dancers and myself."

And unlike competition accolades, artistic decisions in companies aren't made on the basis of a scoring system. "There are so many variables to company life," says Shee. Bettes remembers to pause and appreciate her surroundings. "When you're constantly striving to win that contract, it's easy to get caught up in goal-setting," she says. "Now that I've signed with Boston Ballet, I'm where I want to be, and I can focus on developing into the professional adult I'd like to become. I'm dancing at my own pace."

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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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