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How to Fuel Your Body for Audition Day

Alexandra Hughes remembers she was too nervous to eat before one of her first company auditions. She entered the studio on an empty stomach—and quickly realized she'd made a mistake. “I felt like my brain was telling me what it wanted me to do, but my body couldn't keep up," she says. The experience was sobering: she learned she needed to eat, nervous or not. For her, the secret was small snacks throughout the day; a few months later she secured an apprenticeship with Pennsylvania Ballet.

An audition day presents the perfect storm of food anxiety. The desire to look your best and perform at your highest level can be a perplexing challenge. How do you fuel appropriately without feeling over-full? Stress also presents an unsettling hurdle: When your stomach's in knots, eating is often the last thing you want to do. Yet finding the right audition day diet will allow you to focus on the real challenges—like those 32 fouettés!


The Week Before

First things first: You will not be able to change the way you look before Saturday. "One of the biggest mistakes dancers make before an audition is trying some extreme eating shift in an attempt to lose weight at the last minute," says Rebecca Dietzel, a nutrition consultant for Canada's National Ballet School. Ultimately, drastically reducing portion sizes, skipping meals or cutting out entire food groups will leave your body ill-prepared for the challenging class ahead. Stick to the same amount of fuel you know you need on a regular basis.

Fresh raw salmon steak on cutting board

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The Night Before

Even though no director will notice an extra six ounces of fluid in your body, you want to steer clear of anything that will make you feel insecure in a leotard and tights. Minimize the amount of sodium you have the night before to prevent bloating. "Most of the sodium people take in actually comes from processed foods," points out Roberta Anding, a registered dietitian who works with Houston Ballet. Sodium is added as a preservative, and doesn't necessarily mean the food will taste salty—one serving of instant pudding has the sodium equivalent of two slices of deli ham.

Instead of eating anything processed, focus on whole, natural foods. Anding suggests a dinner along the lines of grilled salmon, brown rice, steamed broccoli and fruit salad, with lots of water to drink. Hughes makes sure her dinner is fairly hearty since she knows she'll be eating small, lighter meals the next day.

The Morning Of

You've heard it a million times—don't skip breakfast! You want to get the most out of this first meal since your nerves will only get worse as audition time approaches. "Anxiety just doesn't allow your stomach to empty very well," says Anding. A breakfast of Greek yogurt, oatmeal and berries is a great option because they are all low glycemic index foods. "That means they're time released," she explains. Instead of all the carbohydrates dumping into your bloodstream at once, they will provide slow and steady fuel all morning long.

Hughes' audition day breakfast usually includes an egg with toast, a banana to minimize leg cramping, orange juice and milk. Protein is a must. "Having it in the morning keeps my mind a little more focused," she says. You can get protein in different ways. Some brands of Greek yogurt contain 14 grams—about the same amount as two eggs. Alternatively, you can get 11 grams of protein from one cup of oatmeal.

Bananas and peanut butter and chia seeds on toast on a white plate against a pink background.

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Just Before

For optimum strength, put something in your stomach a couple hours prior to dancing. Trail mix, a banana with peanut butter, or yogurt are all good choices. Many dancers rely on energy bars because of their portability. "If you're going to eat a bar, just be sure to read the ingredients," Anding says. "You want nothing containing sugar alcohols, which tend to cause gas, cramping, bloating and diarrhea." Sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol, and any other ingredient ending in "-ol," are sugar alcohols.

Even if the butterflies are making it difficult to eat, it's never a good idea to walk into the studio running on empty. Anding points out that milk, whether you prefer soy or traditional cow's milk, will leave your stomach quickly and can provide carbohydrates, proteins and nutrients that are great fuel for your muscles.

Make sure to pack additional snacks in case you have to wait around for your group to dance. When Hughes was placed in a later auditioning group, she ate something small again after registration. When her nerves were bad, she opted for a yogurt since it isn't solid and her body can digest it easily.

Afterwards

About 30 minutes after the audition, eat again to help your muscles repair. "If you have another audition, even if it's four or five days later, your preparation starts the moment the first one is over," says Anding. Again, protein is a good choice, but it doesn't have to be meat. Edamame, hummus or nuts can all get the job done without feeling heavy in your stomach.

A hand holds a pink bowl filled with edamame, against a white background.

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What To Avoid

Caffeine and alcohol are two of the biggest performance busters. Too much caffeine will leave you shaky and can heighten your anxiety. A small amount will help with alertness, but Anding says it shouldn't be more than 4 ounces of coffee a day. Alcohol comes with a host of problems, from impairing muscle recovery to depleting the body of essential B vitamins. The effects are detrimental enough that, she says, "alcohol really just needs to go by the wayside until you've secured your dream job."

As a little auditioning experience soon shows, drastically reducing your food intake will hurt focus and energy level. If you can develop nutritious habits in your day-to-day life, smart pre-audition eating will be second nature. "The whole goal is to keep nutrition off your mind when you're auditioning," says Anding. "It should be simple and stress-free, and you should know you're well-fueled."

A hand fills a glass of water at a metal sink.

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Don't Forget Water

Part of the recipe for your best performance on audition day is proper hydration, but how much fluid is enough? Dietitian Roberta Anding says that a common ballpark figure is half your weight in ounces, so if you weigh 120 pounds, you should drink about 60 ounces per day. Beware that the winter months of audition season can require added focus on fluid intake. Cold weather leads many people to turn to hot drinks like coffee and tea, with less of an impulse to drink water. In addition, the dry air actually depletes your body of moisture (which is evident in dry skin). "Drinking only when you're thirsty is a flawed strategy," says Anding. "You know you're hydrated if your first morning urine looks like pale lemonade."

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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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