From left: Miyoko Koyasu, Tina Pereira, Jordana Daumec and artists of the National Ballet of Canada in The Sleeping Beauty.

Karolina Kuras, Courtesy NBoC

A Brief History of Tutus, From the Romantic Era to Today

The tutu has become the symbol of the ballerina. But what is the history of this strange protruding skirt which allegedly gets its name from the French children's word cucu, meaning "bottom"? Pointe took a look back at some important moments in innovation.

The Romantic Tutu

In 1832 the ballet La Sylphide premiered in Paris with ballerina Marie Taglioni in the title role. This work sparked the Romantic era of ballet, and Taglioni's dress of a white bodice and bell-shaped skirt instantly became the model costume for a ballerina.

Tutus were strongly influenced by current fashion and the advances of the Industrial Revolution. They were made from cotton muslin and gauze, which had previously only been available from India but was now being grown in the Americas and woven in British factories. The turn of the 19th century also saw the invention of a weaving machine that could create "bobbinet" (now known as tulle), previously made by hand. The muslin, gauze and tulle were stiffened with starch derived from corn and wheat, and were layered to form the skirt of the tutu. These light fabrics gave the illusion that the dancer was floating.

Courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library

Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide

New advancements in the theater—particularly in lighting—played an important role in tutu development. In the late 18th century, theaters were lit by candlelight and ballet costumes were made of heavy silk, woven with metallic thread and decorated with spangles and sequins, which glittered in the flickering light. By the early 19th century, brighter and more even gaslighting had been invented, which created a very different effect. The new tutus glowed bright white in this light.

However, the combination of lighter-weight fabrics and gaslighting was a dangerous duo. Many ballerinas tragically died when the skirts of their tutus caught fire. The most famed was Taglioni's protégée Emma Livry, whose costume caught fire during a rehearsal. Although fireproofing was available, many dancers refused because it made the costumes stiff and dull. Eventually, new ways of fireproofing were developed, and lighting was made safer.

The Classical Tutu

By the end of the 19th century, ballet technique had continued to evolve and so, too, had the tutu. As the demands of pointework increased, the tutu was shortened to just above the knee. While the Romantic period had favored the diaphanous quality, the late-19th-century tutu had a more defined shape and elaborate decoration on the corseted bodice. This new, shorter costume allowed more of the legs to be visible, drawing attention to new styles of footwork, petit allégro and turns.

In this antique sepia-toned lithograph, a ballerina stands on pointe with her left foot in coup\u00e9 devant and clasps her hands near her right ear. She wears a dark old-fashioned tutu, with a tutu that reaches her mid-thigh and a tightly fitted camisole bodice.

Carlotta Brianza, the original Princess Aurora in Marius Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theater in 1890

Courtesy the Petipa Society

Tutus and the Ballets Russes

By the turn of the 20th century, the tutu was the ballerina's stage uniform, whether she was playing the role of a gypsy or a princess. This shifted with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which rebelled against this aesthetic and designed costumes that echoed the ballets' themes. For the premiere of The Firebird in 1910, Tamara Karsavina in the title role wore elaborate feathered trousers and a tunic. (The costume was later changed to a tutu.)

NYPL Digital Collections

Tamara Karsavina as the title role in The Firebird at the Ballets Russes, 1910

In 1921, the Ballets Russes revived The Sleeping Beauty, renamed The Sleeping Princess. Léon Bakst designed elaborate tutus that can be seen to reflect both the 1890s and 1920s styles. The tutus are almost dropped-waist, with the plate emerging from low on the hips.

In this black and white photo from 1921, a ballerina stands on a Persian rug in B+. She wears tights and pointe shoes, and a white, lacy dropped waist tutu with ruching along the bodice and skirt. She holds her tutu with her left hand and holds her right arm out to the side.

Lubov Egorova as Princess Aurora in the Ballets Russes' The Sleeping Princess, 1921.

Bassano Ltd, National Portrait Gallery

Mid-Century Tutus

In the 1930s and '40s, shorter tutus emerged featuring a more recognizable fitted bodice, basque (the section between the bodice and skirt) and plate. The tutu plate was now often reinforced with a metal hoop to maintain the shape and look of the shorter and higher tutus. This was the forerunner of what we know as the "pancake" tutu today.

In this video, Alicia Markova's costume reflects this style as she dances the Nutcracker's Sugarplum Fairy variation at Jacob's Pillow in 1941.

Karinska and the Powder Puff Tutu

In the late 1940s, George Balanchine wanted a tutu that allowed viewers to see the dancer's movements uninhibited by a large, hooped skirt. Costume maker and designer Barbara Karinska created the "powder puff" tutu to solve this. This new style was smaller, shorter and lighter and used only six to seven layers of net, with no hoop.

Karinska was not new to the tutu. She had started making ballet costumes in the early 1930s, and one of her first innovations had been introducing bias (cut on the cross-grain of the fabric) to the side of the bodice, which allowed for both movement and a tight fit.

Costume designer Holly Hynes describes Karinska's tutus as works of art. "She often would combine different colors of tulle, mixing them like paint," says Hynes. "The illusion onstage would be one color with a lot of nuance. She also was very inventive, trying to find trims and decoration that would appear heavier onstage than they really were."

John Lindquist copyright Harvard Theatre Collection, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

Maria Tallchief and Andre Eglevsky at Jacob's Pillow, circa 1957. Note the costume's tightly fitted bodice and puffy skirt.

By the 1960s the tutu had gotten even shorter, reflecting the changes in both technique and choreography and showing off the dancers' limbs and athletic movements in a new way.

Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Courtesy Museum at FIT

Margot Fonteyn's costume from The Sleeping Beauty (circa 1960s), originally designed by Oliver Messel in 1946

Playing With Shape and Style

Over the years, designers and choreographers have played with the design and shape of this iconic garment. In 1996 Stephen Galloway designed the now iconic disc-like tutus for William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. These costumes, while referencing the classical tutu, created a new, streamlined silhouette.

Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Leta Biasucci and former soloist Margaret Mullin in William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude

Earlier this year, The Dutch National Ballet responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by making a social-distancing tutu. This astonishing costume is three meters in diameter and made of denim.

The tutu remains the ballerina's most iconic tool and costume. While physically distancing, it also connects the dancers of today to ballet's rich history—interconnected with fashion, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the ballerina.

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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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