Your Best Body: TRX Suspension Training

It’s no secret dancers have special fitness needs, so it may seem surprising that new research from Walnut Hill School for the Arts recommends a workout developed not by a ballerina, but a Navy SEAL. With the help of doctors from Boston Children’s Hospital, Walnut Hill’s director of dance Michael Owen and director of physical therapy Susan Kinney found TRX suspension training to be a secret ingredient in injury prevention in ballet dancers. The results come after 10-plus years of study, during which the school developed a wellness program consisting of Pilates, Gyrokinesis, hydroconditioning (resistance conditioning done in a pool) and TRX suspension training to reduce stress-related injuries, like fractures, in 14- to 18-year-old pre-professional dancers. Although the other forms of cross-training helped with injury prevention, TRX produced the most dramatic results.

The Workout
In a suspension training class, participants use straps anchored to a secure point, like rigging on the ceiling, to do simple exercises meant to strengthen, correct muscular imbalances and prevent injuries. A class might include single leg extensions with the working leg looped through a strap, vertical push-ups or lifting the hips into downward dog with feet in the straps. “Unlike other forms of weight training where the athlete might overdo the amount of weight and become injured, with suspension training, you work against your own body weight,” says Kinney. Plus, TRX is similar to ballet in that it gets you moving in all three planes—forward and back, up and down and side to side.

The Results

Walnut Hill’s research found increased strength in dancers who took just two 45-minute classes each week for five weeks. Pre-, mid- and post-program screenings measured the strength of key muscles used in ballet. Across the board, dancers gained strength in the lower abdominals, the gluteus medias (the primary pelvic stabilizing muscle used to properly align the hips when standing on one leg) and the flexor hallucis longus (the muscle that curls the big toe and plays a large role in demi-pointe work). That’s because the exercises often take dancers off balance, involve stabilizing the pelvis and core or require the feet to be firmly planted on the floor.

Try It
So how can you achieve similar results? Kinney says if you take a TRX class at a gym or YMCA, it won’t necessarily be tailored to dancers. She and Owen note that Walnut Hill’s curriculum took the movement and weight distribution of suspension training and adapted it to what is helpful, healthy and safe for dancers. But Owen expects to see more dancers eventually teaching TRX in gyms. Be sure to check into an instructor’s experience before choosing a class. “If they have some sort of dance background, I think that would be ideal,” says Owen. And be on the lookout for suspension training classes exclusively for dancers: The Boston Conservatory has already launched a version of Walnut Hill’s TRX program, and the research team hopes to expand the training to other dance schools.

 


Mental Olympics
With all the elements you’re supposed to think about during technique class—sequencing, counts, corrections, musicality—it’s only natural for your brain to feel exhausted. That’s where exercising your mind outside of the studio helps. Enter Fit Brains, the brain-training system that uses a series of games designed by neuroscientists to sharpen memory, concentration, visual-spatial coordination, problem solving and language skills. Not only do the games adapt to your specific strengths and weaknesses, but since they’re hosted online, you can use them virtually anywhere. Create an account at fitbrains.com to play a selection of their free games, and start training your way to a more perfect petit allégro.

 

 

Eat Fruit First
The Situation: You’re heading to a post-performance potluck full of scrumptious foods but still want to make healthy choices.

The Solution: Go for the fruit salad first. A recent study by Cornell University researchers found you’re less likely to overindulge at a buffet if you serve yourself fruit before heavier options like potatoes or cheesy casseroles. Why? When faced with a spread of food, people tend to fill their plates with the first dish in the line, leaving less plate space for other options.

 

 


Get Moving

With summer right around the corner, you may be dreaming of trading the ballet barre for the beach. And though taking some downtime is healthy, a recent study by scientists at Wayne State University suggests that long-term inactivity has an impact not only on the body, but also the brain. When you’re sedentary for a 12-week period, the structure and function of the brain can actually change, making the nervous system overstimulated and less able to react correctly. Though the study showed these changes in lab rats, researchers believe the same applies to humans. So be sure to work a game of Frisbee into your lazy beach days.

 


Cool Off
After an intense master class, you know your muscles are bound to be sore. But recent research suggests relief may be as close as your bathtub. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that soaking in a tub of 46-degree Fahrenheit water for 10 minutes speeds up muscle recovery, leaving you less sore after a vigorous workout. The cool water is thought to fight inflammation by bringing down the temperature of deep muscle tissue without constricting too much blood flow. If 46 degrees sounds too chilly, water ranging from 47 to 71 degrees will still give you some of the same effects.

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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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