Colleen Reed and a classmate in rehearsal at The University of Oklahoma. Photo by Noor Eemaan, Courtesy Reed.

Think A Dance Degree Is Only Good for A Performance Career? Here Are 4 Grads with 4 Different Career Paths.

When you decided to pursue a dance degree, it was most likely with the intent to join a ballet company after graduation. But college is also a place of self-exploration and discovery—and sometimes your dreams change. While auditioning for companies may seem the natural "next step" for graduating dance majors, a degree can lead to a variety of paths. Here are four recent dance program graduates with four different career goals.

Devinne Cook, University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Photo by Rodney Rice, Randolf Images, Courtesy Davinne Cook

"When I was applying to colleges, I knew that dance was something I was good at, and something I wanted to do as long as possible," says Devinne Cook, who graduated from University of North Carolina School of the Arts with a BFA in dance last spring. By her sophomore year, however, something had changed: The high caliber of talent at UNCSA reframed her perspective on what it takes to be a successful dancer. "I just started feeling really defeated, like I wasn't going to make it," she says.

Cook felt a great deal of pressure, having convinced her mom to let her apply to only conservatory programs: "When I decided I wasn't going to dance after college, I didn't tell my mom. I just told myself, 'I'm going to finish my degree.' "

Somewhat panicked, Cook looked into simultaneously pursuing an online business degree, but it wasn't feasible. "Our dance schedule was pretty demanding, and I would have been stretched too thin," she says. She decided to take the next two years to explore potential career paths.

Cook got some clarity her senior year, when she served as co-chair in two extracurricular organizations. "I realized I'm really good at administrative work, and I got so much more fulfillment out of it than performing," she says. With this new insight, she began looking into graduate programs in arts administration. All the while, she continued taking technique, repertory and liberal arts classes, savoring the opportunity to grow in UNCSA's immersive environment. Her decision to stick with the dance program paid off her senior year, when she had the opportunity to perform work by Doug Varone. "He came to UNCSA to set a piece on us, and it was honestly my most fulfilling performance experience, ever," she says.

Cook plans to keep dance a part of her life. She began her master's degree in business/arts administration at Wake Forest University this summer, with aspirations to open a dance studio.

Orlagh McKenzie, Point Park University

Photo by Kamillia McKracken, Courtesy McKenzie

By age 14, Orlagh McKenzie knew she wanted to join a professional ballet company. This aspiration took her to Point Park University, where she began working toward her BA in dance in 2014. Yet something shifted around her sophomore year. "My sister is a psychologist, and she would share stories about helping children and the great feelings it gave her," she says. "I realized I wanted to experience that in my career." In high school, McKenzie had worked with abused dogs. She thought there might be a career that could utilize that experience, but for children who were victims of abuse. That's when she stumbled upon dance therapy, and began to revise her postgraduate plans.

Letting go of her dance dream wasn't easy. "I spent a lot of time second-guessing what I wanted," she says. "I felt lost. I had this career path in my head for so long, and now everything I knew was going away." But when she finally made the decision to apply to graduate programs in dance therapy, she felt a sense of happiness and excitement. "I knew then that I was making the right choice," she says.

McKenzie continued her dance training with the same rigor, while also exploring courses in human development and psychology. "Point Park's training program is so amazing," she says. "It's an intense schedule with 18 credit hours of technique, and I wanted to take advantage of every moment of it." Because of her packed dance schedule during the year, McKenzie used her summers to take prerequisite courses for graduate school at her local community college. Now, she's working toward her MA in dance/movement therapy at Lesley University. She hopes to continue dancing and to take on the occasional freelance project, but she's excited to be working toward her new dream career.

Anna Grunewald, Jacob's School of Music, Indiana University

Grunewald in Balanchine's "La Source." Photo by Morgan Buchart, Courtesy Grunewald.

Anna Grunewald considered auditioning for companies right after high school, but a bad spinal injury her senior year temporarily closed that door. "I was wary of pursuing a dance degree, because I didn't know a lot of dancers who chose that path," she says. "But because I could use videos to audition while I recovered, it seemed like the best option for me."

She knew she had made the right decision as soon as she entered the ballet department at Indiana University. "It didn't feel like I was delaying anything," she says. The staff at IU run the ballet department as much like a professional company as possible. More than that, Grunewald relished the exposure to world-class training and diverse repertoire, as she took on roles from Balanchine to Bournonville to Mark Morris. "I not only developed a stronger sense of technique and awareness of my body as a dancer, I developed a completely new sense of artistry," she says. Grunewald believes her experience at IU helped prepare her for her performance career, which she will begin this fall as an apprentice with Ballet Arizona.

All ballet majors at IU also take on an outside field, which is above a minor but below a major. Grunewald studied arts management at IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. This made for long days, with a full schedule of dance bookended by academic classes, but she is thankful to have the arts management experience in her back pocket. "I want to have as much of a professional career as I can, but as a dancer, I know my body is my instrument, and there is always a risk of injury," she says. "If anything should happen, I can stay in the field of ballet and the arts, but shift focus to management."

Colleen Reed, The University of Oklahoma

Photo by Rachel Neville, Courtesy Reed.

When Colleen Reed began her BFA at The University of Oklahoma, she thought it would be wise to get a second degree. She initially thought sports medicine would be a nice complement to dance, but scheduling proved difficult. Then she discovered OU's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. "I really clicked with the public relations courses, and decided to take it on as a second major," she says.

Reed gave equal energy and attention to her dance training. "The teachers shaped me into a different dancer," she says. "They are, in my opinion, the best faculty you can receive training from before you enter the next step in your life." In addition to working with visiting guest artists, she developed a love for contemporary ballet after performing a featured role in Michael Bearden's Simpatico.

Meanwhile, Reed's senior dance capstone project integrated her PR studies and helped her discover her niche within the field. "I wrote about how important public relations is for boosting ballet's popularity in the media," she says. "I'm really inspired by Misty Copeland's Under Armour campaign, and I feel like if ballet companies connected more with the media world, they'd be able to boost their audiences."

While completing her project, Reed pursued opportunities in both fields, auditioning for companies and attending journalism/communications career fairs. During one of those fairs, Reed got some interesting advice. "I have two separate resumés, one for PR and one for dance," she says. "One representative told me I should include my dance experience on my PR resumé, because it would set me apart and show the level of discipline I'd bring to the job."

At graduation, Reed's hope was to dance professionally while also doing PR for the company. Luckily, having two passions helped deflect some of the job-searching pressure: "If I end up going the PR route, I can still be involved in the dance world, and hopefully pick up some freelance projects on the side." As of now, however, it looks like her career may go the other way around: In July, she announced on her Instagram page that she will be joining Ballet Frontier in Fort Worth, TX, and that she plans to pursue public relations work once she gets settled.

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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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