Dancers prepare before a Ballet West open audition. Jim Lafferty.

Upping the Stakes: How to Mentally Prepare for Your First Company Audition

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member Victoria Watford recalls the first time she auditioned for the company: Even though she had attended PBT's summer intensive several times, the Cleveland native felt completely unprepared. "I was treating it like a summer intensive audition," she remembers. "There was an energy in the room of a lot of people who are ready to be professionals and are confident in their dancing. If you're not ready, you will feel it." Watford wasn't offered a job, so she took a place in the school's graduate program. Over the next two years she pursued company auditions until she ultimately landed her spot at PBT.


When you first start auditioning for companies, the stakes can feel so high. Your entire training experience has led you to this point, yet many dancers are surprised by the differences they find in a company audition setting. In addition to the various ways they're structured, you'll be treated with the frankness reserved for an adult professional. While you've been tackling the physical impossibilities of ballet for a decade or more, here are some tips on how to mentally prepare for your first audition season.

Don't Limit Yourself

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When deciding where to audition, try not to tether your expectations to a short list of high-profile companies. "When we talk to our students, 10 of them will list the same companies they want to dance for," says Pacific Northwest Ballet School managing director Denise Bolstad. "The ones who are open-minded are the most successful." A rejection will only hit harder when you have limited your options. "We have had students get into small companies who went kicking and screaming, and three months into it they are happy," says Bolstad. "They are doing lead roles, they love the city. Be open-minded if you really want to dance."

Be Ready for Anything

When it comes to open-call auditions, Watford says, "there are no rules." While summer intensive auditions follow a somewhat predictable ballet-class formula, with each group rotating by number to give everyone a moment at the front, company auditions can vary. Class may be heavily abbreviated (so come warm) and can include cuts after barre and during center. You may also be asked to learn repertoire, perform a variation, improvise or demonstrate your partnering skills with a dancer you've never met. Be prepared for anything, and try not to let the "unknown" rattle you.

An invitation to audition via company class will increase your chances of being seen, but this, too, can be daunting for first-timers. "A downside is that you are auditioning beside dancers who all understand what the director wants," says Ballet West corps member Lillian Casscells. It can also be nerve-racking to figure out where to stand at barre or to know when to go to the front in center. "It helps to find a friendly face," says Casscells, who recommends asking a company member where you should stand. "Usually the dancers are very understanding, and they will allow you to go to the front for a few combinations in center."

Leave Your Emotions at the Door

Dancers at a Ballet West audition

Jim Lafferty

It is imperative that you separate your sense of self-worth from the outcome of any audition. "I try to remind our students that this is much more practical than they think," says Bolstad. "It's a job interview. Go into it with great confidence and rely on your training." She adds that cuts aren't designed to be hurtful, but for efficiency, since directors can't objectively look at 200 people at once. And when directors say they only have one or two openings? Believe them. "They have a strict budget," says Bolstad. "They can't always hire you even if they really want to."

The very nature of ballet training may leave you scanning the studio to size up the competition, but remember: A dancer's most impressive stretches before class have no bearing on her audition success. "Don't focus on everyone else in the room," says Watford. "Focus on yourself and what you do best. Wear things that make you feel confident and put your best foot forward when you can."

"Thanks, But No Thanks"

Rejection is more common than good news and comes in many forms. Whether you receive radio silence after you send in audition materials, get cut from a cattle call, or hear an unenthusiastic "We'll be in touch" after taking company class, it is going to sting.

Try not to take it personally; the faster you can separate an audition rejection from your sense of self, the more successful you will be. "Most of the time it's not about you. It is just the opinion of one person in the front of the room looking for something very specific that day," says Watford. Casscells agrees: "It's so hard because we are trained our whole lives to be acutely aware of every single flaw." But she adds that the odds that you have exactly what every director is looking for is slim. "I'm not saying that to be discouraging. Rather, it's a weight lifted off your shoulders knowing that a rejection is not because of something you did, but because you didn't fit into a specific folder."

Don't lose sight of what you have already accomplished. "You have picked one of the hardest professions in the world, and you have already come so far," says Bolstad. "You should be tremendously proud to have gotten to this point."

Keep Your Head in the Game

Sarah Pflug via Burst

We asked Brian Goonan, PhD, a dance psychologist based in Houston, for advice on staying mentally strong during auditions.

Look at the big picture. It's natural to be worried about rejection. Do your research and apply to numerous companies that may be looking for what you have to offer (and not just dream companies). Let your strengths and ability be your selling point, because there isn't much else you can control in an audition setting.

Visualize success. Picture yourself dancing your best before you enter the studio. Feel it. Visualize completing difficult steps successfully. It allows you to prime muscle and movement sequences without having to practice them in the studio.

Self-care is crucial. Proper sleep, eating habits, stress management and relaxation allow a dancer to have full access to the physical and emotional resources they will need to perform comfortably at their optimal level.

Set reasonable goals. Goals are best designed when they involve input, not outcome, since outcomes in the dance world are based on the subjective appraisals of others. For example, rather than setting an objective to be hired by a specific company, focus on applying last week's pirouette correction during your audition class. "Best" needs to be determined by the dancer, not the evaluators.

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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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