From left: Diego Cruz and Rubén Martín Cintas

Courtesy Worldwide Ballet Class

Artist-Entrepreneurs Diego Cruz and Rubén Martín Cintas on Creating Community Through Worldwide Ballet Class

A few days after San Francisco Ballet went on coronavirus furlough in mid-March, soloist Diego Cruz led a sheltered-in-place company class on Zoom for 15 fellow SFB dancers. They enjoyed the class—and the camaraderie—so much that they did another one the next day and invited friends from other companies, who brought more friends to a third class the day after. Just like that, Worldwide Ballet Class was born.

Among the many high-quality online ballet classes currently available, WWBC stands out for offering dancers of all levels the opportunity to take open company class alongside professional dancers, six days a week. Held at 11:30 am PDT Monday through Saturday, the classes are taught by the likes of Julie Kent, Christopher Stowell, SFB ballet master Felipe Diaz and National Ballet of Canada principal Jurgita Dronina—and are free of charge. And even though your classmates might include pros such as Gonzalo Garcia, Ashley Murphy-Wilson and Georgina Pazcoguin, there's no intimidation factor; Cruz and co-founder Rubén Martín Cintas, a ballet master at The Washington Ballet and former SFB principal, keep the mood light, friendly and motivational. Friends since their training days in Spain, the artist-entrepreneurs are also partners in the Paellas & Cos catering outfit and Zarely, a dancewear company that sponsors WWBC. We caught up with Cruz and Cintas to find out how their relaxed, brothers-from-another-mother relationship gives WWBC an upbeat vibe that makes training-in-shelter a happy, hopeful experience.

What makes WWBC so special is that anyone can take top-tier company classes, and you're so warm and welcoming. It feels like a community, and we all need that right now.

Diego Cruz: That's how we see it too. You see a lot of the same people, and there are always new people coming in; I've met so many people. You can say hi to the teacher and we're all together.

Rubén Martín Cintas: It's very easygoing. The way that we are as people, that's the way we connect with the world.

A screenshot of a Zoom page, showing many tiny windows of dancers stretching or speaking into the camera.

A still from Gonzalo Garcia's advanced/professional ballet class.

Courtesy Worldwide Ballet Class

It's grown so fast, and at the highest level.

DC: Rubén contacted his friends: Julie Kent said yes right away, Christopher Stowell said yes right away. This is a chance for everybody to take class from the best teachers in the world, and watch the best dancers in the world. When I was younger, only in my dreams would I be taking class like this.

You're a bit like DJs, curating who is shown and making sure the music and visuals flow during class. What are you doing behind the scenes?

RMC: We're always doing other things at the same time. Diego is doing highlights and working on the posts for Instagram, I am working on the website and the biographies of the teachers.

DC: Before, I hated Instagram. Now I'm on Instagram all day long. It's a job to do all of the stories, making it look good.

How are you able to offer the classes for free?

DC: I wanted to make it free for everybody. I'm very lucky that at SFB we are still getting paid. We don't make any money with it; we started a Venmo because people asked to make donations. We use that money to cover the Zoom account and pay the pianist, David Morse.

RMC: Diego and I also co-founded Zarely with a friend of ours in Germany, and we're able to stream the classes on Zarely's YouTube channel.

A screenshot of a YouTube video showing Julie Kent, dressed all in black, teaching a barre from her dining room.

Julie Kent teaching on Zoom

Courtesy Worldwide Ballet Class

Classes routinely get more than 100 dancers. Was Julie Kent's first class the biggest one so far?

DC: Yes, with like 270 people! On Zoom you have to keep upgrading to have more people. We were regularly having 60, 70 people, but that day I was like, I'm gonna pay to upgrade just in case—good thing, because we were like, oh my god.

How can aspiring dancers make the most of WWBC classes?

RMC: On Zoom you can have your camera open or closed. The dancers that have the camera open go into the first pages on our screens, and those are the ones we choose from to get highlighted during class. The younger dancers are opening their cameras much more, and we're able to showcase them so the teachers can see them and maybe give feedback. For example, Julie gives her combination and then goes to the camera and gives comments to her dancers and the dancers we spotlight. We showcase as many people as possible.

DC: Julie made so many people's dreams come true. Even for me—Rubén took me to The Washington Ballet and I met her, and it was such a big deal!

RMC: When Diego teaches class, he is super-aware of encouraging and offering feedback. Julie and Christopher are like that too. The teachers have that generous sense of giving their attention. Sometimes people have the wrong impression of people just because they're in a certain position. We wanted to show that people are generous, people have big hearts.

WWBC is a unique opportunity for dancers, but it's also a ray of sunshine during this hard time.

RMC: It's all about the experience. No matter who the big-name teacher is, we want people to have the best experience possible.

DC: Sometimes people take ballet too seriously. I want people to enjoy it. Now is the time to be happy, not sad.

Find the weekly schedule, which includes beginner/intermediate classes, stretching, conditioning and pointe, on Instagram @worldwide_ballet_class; classes are live in Zoom room 904-525-5655 and on Zarely's YouTube page, where select classes are also archived.

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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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