Give, Take, Show: Remembering Arthur Mitchell
Last Wednesday, Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder and ballet pioneer Arthur Mitchell died. He was 84 years old and, though vibrant and tenacious as ever, this past year the toll that illness and age were taking on him was visible.
In October when he hosted "An Informal Performance on the Art of Dance" to celebrate the donation of his archives to Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the upcoming Wallach Art Gallery Exhibition, he shared that his recent hip surgery left him requiring a shoe with a lift. He acknowledged his "altered state" with panache, that side-eyed smirk catching the light with a cheek bone, and ending with a chuckle that broadened to a dazzling open-mouthed smile.
Mr. Mitchell's acute awareness of his pulchritude and charm, and the adroit manner in which he wielded them, have always been key factors of his influence.
Ever the showman, he introduced each piece, being quintessential "Arthur Mitchell": inspiring, anecdotal, highly-praising yet sometimes throwing shade as he delivered witty commentary that made the audience laugh, reflect and shake our heads in awe—of him. He was in his glory.
Mitchell leading a rehearsal at DTH. Photo by Marbeth, courtesy DM Archives
I joined his company in 1989, but I first encountered Arthur Mitchell when I was 8 years old. Dance Theatre of Harlem was in Philadelphia with a mixed bill program called "Doin' It." The second act opened with a ballet barre featuring 12 local ballet students—including me.
I was in awe. For so long, I had been the only black girl in my classes both at Baldwin Academy for Girls and Pennsylvania Ballet. I could hardly believe that there were other black people who did ballet and just as well as the company dancers I had been idolizing. Mr. Mitchell was so loud and grand. I had never seen the likes of him. He was larger than life, like a superhero. Today I would say that he seemed like the Black Panther—invincible, impenetrable, immortal.
Arthur Mitchel coaching DTH dancers. Photo by Sigrid Estrada, courtesy DM Archives
But it was within his humanness that the complexity and contradiction of Arthur Mitchell was found. A black man born and raised in Harlem, coming of age in 1950s America, he would become the first permanent black principal of New York City Ballet, and the co-founder of the first black ballet company in the world.
He almost single-handedly inspired and gave opportunities to thousands of ballet dancers of color, showing the world that indeed, "Yes we can" and just as well—if not better than most—and with a little Harlem flair.
He showed young brown dancers not only how to traverse the world, but how to navigate in it when it was hostile to their presence. "Stand up straight, chest up, head up, eyes up" were not just concepts in ballet, but something that he taught dancers to take out beyond the streets of Harlem. He taught us, "You represent something larger than yourself": DTH, our parents, our city, our country, our race. And he made us proud to own all of them.
Arthur Mitchell in a movement from George Balanchine's Agon. Photo courtesy DM Archives.
He was a true product of his era: the Black Power movement of the '60s, a time when blacks were "Beautiful" and making breakthroughs. His friend circle included pop star Harry Belafonte, opera singer Jessye Norman and actress Cicely Tyson. It was a time when newly-affluent blacks were testing the boundaries, balancing success, fame and influence with social justice. The civil rights movement was cresting just as they were, and the architects understood the importance of aesthetics. By protesting in their Sunday best, the movement visually rebuked the stereotypes that criminalized the black body in America. Mr. Mitchell was a master of presentation in appearance, speech and comportment, and he insisted in the same for his students, dancers and employees.
The manner in which he doled out lessons about comportment, hair, make-up, the company you kept, and even your sexuality ranged from courtly to crass: "Miss, you need to put some lipstick on—you can't dance beautifully if you don't look and feeeel beautiful"; "Don't be precious dear...I don't care who you sleep with, but I want to see men on stage."
He could use your personal information to illustrate a point; he loved to tell you what your problem was. I remember being 12 years old in my first DTH summer intensive, in Homer Bryant's partnering class, and as Mister (as he was affectionately referred to) was wont to do, he hijacked the class and began teaching. He said to me, "Philadelphia, ah I see, I see. Your problem is you want to be in charge, you're trying to lead, you're too bossy. I remember when I saw you in Philadelphia and you told your father," he put his hand on his hip, " 'I'm going to New York,' and I said well look at this…"
Although he was not always wrong in some of his assessments and critiques, it was always through his lens of cultural neutrality. There was little space for being an individual. He was a student of the respectability politics. Mr. Mitchell bore no markings of his Harlem zip code. His clear diction was that of a prep school student, his attire was tailored and tidy, his hair always neatly groomed. He knew the power and privilege of presenting as a "non-threatening negro" to whites to gain access and support. Then, through art, he knew he could break barriers and change minds. He was the empirical evidence that this worked and it was his mission to mold us in his image.
His Dance Theatre of Harlem was like a stealth artistic army fighting for social justice. Our weapons were ballet, elegance and class.
Mitchell was known to hijack other teacher's classes when he wanted to give a lesson. Photo courtesy DM Archives
For most who have been in the DTH trenches, we had complicated relationships with the man who influenced, inspired, encouraged us and to whom owe our careers. Like many artistic directors, Mr. Mitchell was a father figure. As a parent, he was hard on us—and often most brutal on the ones he deemed most talented. Black parents discipline their children with a heavy hand because the world is harsher and our consequences are not the same.
I would not be divulging a secret when I state that, amongst many things, Mr. Mitchell was a difficult man. He was old-school "break you down to build you up," if could people hang in there for the "build you up" part. For some, the faint marks of nicks and cuts are just ironic stories; for others, the wounds go deep and decades later are still too sensitive to touch.
These lessons he taught us enabled us not only to trip the lights fantastic but to move through the world with the confidence, assurance and an unflappable sense of self, knowing we are worthy, and yet clear about the the ugly reality of racism.
But as with any great education, it came with a cost. If you could not, or would not capitulate, there was a price to pay. Those who were independent thinkers, too flamboyant or defiant, he would try to break. I was one of those, untameable. I came into this world with a fully-formed sense of self, and could not be told who or what I was. I was raised with the knowledge that I have a voice and was encouraged to use it.
I remember once in a tech rehearsal for Serenade, the big diagonal before the corps runs off was not right. After repeating it, Mr Mitchell determined that it was my fault. The god mike boomed: "That's the problem: She's looking at the downstage girl when you should be watching the upstage girl." The week before, Victoria Simon from The Balanchine Trust had expressly said to use the downstage girl as your guide. I was pissed. I moved forward and began to tell him this when I felt hands on me pulling me back. I felt all the eye of the elders silently urging me not to do it. "Let it go," I heard. It was a long time before I learned to manage that defiant streak.
Privately, Mr. Mitchell greatly respected and admired the untamable.
Years later, Mr. Mitchell wanted me to dance for the company's 30th anniversary. I met with him in his office, and we had a heart-to-heart. I shared how he had damaged my spirit, and he was shocked that I was still hurt. He told me he treated me harshly because he was mad at me for not understanding my talent. He thought I didn't take it seriously. I told him, "You should have asked me, not assumed you knew me. It was your responsibility to show me, teach me." He didn't refute it; he knew I was right. The truth is, I scared him. He didn't know what to do with or how to handle me.
Mitchell backstage. Photo by Elena Seibert, courtesy DM Archives
Over the years, I have been able to sift through my memories of and emotions for Mr. Mitchell. When I'm teaching, I giggle internally when I hear him come out of my mouth or when I teach a Mr. Mitchell classic, like the port de bras that opens from fifth en haut: "give" (to the audience), "take" (turn your head away as you close en bas), and "show" (snap our head out over the shoulder, chest high, eyes bright, "Zah!").
I even made my level 5 girls at The Ailey School wear red lipstick; that is how people identified "Ms. Howard's girls." He's in there.
Mr. Mitchell's flame burned so brightly that it illuminated the world and cast all who fell beneath it in a most becoming light. People were drawn to him, to the iridescent glow. Many bear scars for having touched the sun, but in doing so were transformed by it, rose from those ashes and were made better for it. You will find precious few who will do not revere, respect and dare I say love him.
The DTH family grieves not just the loss of the man who helped make us, but also what he represented to us. He gave us a place to be somebody. The possibility, the hope, the opportunity, the courage, the audacity, the confidence, the pride. Another lesson Mr. Mitchell taught us was how to laugh, together and at ourselves. He had a wicked sense of humor, and there was nothing better than his thundering laugh.
Mourning is messy business, but we will do it in true DTH fashion, which includes elegance, class and zah! Let us sally forth as we were taught so well. He Gave, we Took, and now let us SHOW.
When the news of Mister's passing broke, the outpouring on social media was overwhelming and showed the breadth and scope of Mr. Mitchell's influence. We have culled a small sample of the honorings below:
He was very handsome and had an elegance about him. It was his signature, he put that on his dancers was in his company. He was one of his generation.
—Delores Browne, New York Negro Ballet
"You are not a line, not a phrase, not a paragraph, not a page...but a chapter in history." A phrase spoken to the dancers and told by Arthur Mitchell to Charlie Rose after the tour to South Africa.
This man changed my life. Literally. I am who I am today, for the most part, because of his investment in me. He gave us the world through dance and encouraged us to do our part to make it a better place. There are no words to express the love and gratitude I have for Arthur Mitchell. Rest in peace dear Teacher, Mentor, Father. Thank you, thank you, thank you and God bless you.
—Donald Williams, former principal dancer, DTH
I am still trying to come to terms with losing the man who pushed me beyond my limits, which caused so many tears but lead me to become my best self. He became a Father figure to me not only in dance but my life. We met when I was just twelve years old and stayed connected throughout my dance career. We would touch base but when I was thinking about leaving ballet he convinced me to leave another company and to join DTH. I was so unsure but I took the chance. He was constantly a part of my life, always demanding me to step up and never allowing me to fall short ... omg did he test me! I have so many truly beautiful moments in my life with Mr. M but my most cherished moment is when he stood in as the patriarch at my wedding. Thank you Mr. Mitchell for all you have done for ballet dancers of color and your legacy will continue, for you taught all your children well. I am already missing you so much !! I need to argue with you about ballet and life!! I love Mr. M!
—Andrea Long Naidu, former DTH principal dancer
Arthur Mitchell saw something in me that at the time I didn't see in myself. I hadn't yet known who I was as a dancer, and he helped to pull out parts of me that were raw in an effort to groom and polish my neo-classical dance. I attribute so much of my success in my professional dancing career to the time I spent at Dance Theatre of Harlem under his tutelage. I learned to embrace my brown tights and pointe shoes, my dance in my brown skin, and honoring those who blazed the trail before me. "You are representing something larger than yourself" was always a constant reminder. "Give, Take, Show!" —Mr. M.
—Naimah Kisoki, former DTH dancer
I just wanted to share a quick and true story. When I first started taking ballet classes I absolutely hated wearing tights and dance belts. Most of the time I simply refused. One day my ballet teacher Ms. Munez brought in this iconic picture of Mr. Mitchell in tights and said, "I want you to dress like this." From that moment on, this was my ballet outfit. Rest In Peace, Arthur Mitchell.
—Robert Battle, artistic director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
The reason I am a ballerina is because of Arthur Mitchell. He found me when I was 14 years old (the year I started ballet), at the time I was really discouraged, and I didn't see any potential. Mr. Mitchell invited me to NYC for my first summer intensive and CHANGED MY LIFE FOREVER. He is THE reason I am still dancing. I didn't know that a few weeks ago would be my last time working with him and being coached by him. I can't even express how devastated I am. I feel honored that you invited me to come and rehearse with you. Thank you for changing the way people think about who gets to do ballet and creating an opportunity for a dancer like me. Thank you for checking on me now and then. Thank you for encouraging me and making me believe that I am good enough and that I should be doing more. That I have a place in this crazy ballet world. Rest In Peace. I wish I had more time with you.
—Nardia Boodoo, dancer, The Washington Ballet
To Arthur Mitchell, Founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Arturo, my heart is aching. You, my Mentor, my Brother, my Friend. I just don't know what to say...,
Siempre, tu Taniasita. RIP.
Arturo, me duele el corazón. Tu, mi
Mentor, mi Hermano, mi Amigo. No se que decir..., Siempre, tu Taniasita. En Paz Descanses.
To Arthur Mitchell, Founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Arturo, my heart is aching. You, my Mentor, my Brother, my Friend. I just don't know what to say...,
Always, your taniasita. RIP.
Arturo, my heart hurts. You, my
Mentor, my brother, my friend. I don't know what to say..., always, your Taniasita.
—Tania J. Leon, conductor
Arthur Mitchell saw in me what I could be. He refined me and helped to shape the vision and direction for my career even the decision to accept my current position.
This is such a painful loss. He meant the world to me.
His last question to me sitting in his apartment this past summer was, "So now that you're at this point, what are you going to do?"
He knew the answer, he just wanted to be sure that I knew I was ready.
—Charmaine Hunter, former DTH principal dancer
Today, I am overwhelmed by the loss of Arthur Mitchell and what he meant to me. So hard to put my feeling into words. I have started a list of the opportunities he provided to me and the thousands of people he touched. Please add to it!
Arthur Mitchell gave me the opportunity to:
Fulfill my dreams
Dance around the world
Meet the most amazing people
Work with beautiful and brilliantly talented artists
Create high art for the world to see
With the greatest choreographers in the world
To work with dance legends
To have lifelong friends
To push my personal limits
To be fearless
Relentless in the pursuit of perfection
To see who I am
What my strengths are
And my weaknesses
To be classically American
With Passion Power and Perfection
To give take show
With a sense of I am.
To represent something much larger than myself
To be a Firebird a Swan, a Princess and a Maiden
To turn on a dime
Hop on toe
Spread my wings
To use my third finger in more ways than one
To use the arts to ignite the mind
To build an exhibition, and tour with it for 9 years
To share the legacy of DTH
To manage one of the largest dance archives in the U.S.
—Judy Tyrus, former DTH principal dancer/museum curator
The man that said I could and would dance professionally because I'm an Aries and born the day before him. 🤣 I'm so grateful to have had studio time with Mr. Mitchell, to witness his contagious smile, and perform his ballets. Thank you, Mr. Mitchell for teaching me one of the biggest lessons in my career, one that I use as a daily mantra. "Just remember, you're representing something larger than yourself." 💜🙏🏾
—Raven Barkley, Charlotte Ballet
An inspiration to the world and a force to be reckoned with. What a phenomenal life lived. This highly dignified man gave me my first job in NYC 17 years ago and taught me what it was to represent something enormous. Thank you for letting a loudmouth non-dancing broad be part of your company and be enveloped by the family you created. You are forever part of my story, Mister.
—Liz Magnuson England, former DTH general manager
To say that this man transformed my life would be saying too little. Mister, you lit a flame inside of me that will never extinguish. Never have I ever wanted to work harder, be better, quicker, more alert, more captivating, than I did for you. I feel so blessed to be a part of the legacy you created. Thanks for all the joy and all the pain.
—Dionne Dadrinelle Figgins, former DTH dancer
Sitting in the studio before my class was about to start I get a call from my friend and colleague Kevin Thomas that Arthur Mitchell has passed away. So many different emotions hit me all at once, but I never expected to feel as if I lost my father!! Arthur Mitchell was a Hard task master and demanded Perfection from us not I only in The Studio and Stage, but in Life as well!! He would say, "You are representing something bigger/larger than yourself" so act accordingly! At times I hated and loved him but always respected him, and never forgot what he taught me. Thank you, Maestro, for shaping who I am today, not just as an Artist but as a Man. Rest in Paradise, Mr. Mitchell. One love and blessings always.
—Mark Burns, former DTH dancer
I started working in the business in 1991 as an apprentice at a sound shop in Mt. Vernon. In 1997 someone at the sound shop told me they were looking for a sound man at DTH to go on tour. I spent 8 years with DTH and loved every second. Mister showed me that Brown people can do this too in all aspects, from being on stage to behind the scenes. Just last night at an opening night party for Hamilton here in Boston, a couple of the cast members were dancing to some music but adding ballet to an R&B song, I ran over and told them "hi, hi, chin up...ahhhh thank you." We laughed and they asked how do you know about chin up? I told them Arthur Mitchell would tell the dancers this all the time. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity that you gave me, Mr. Mitchell.
—Anthony Jones, former sound technician for DTH
The first time I had seen or heard of DTH was in 1974. I had been taking ballet at the Houston Ballet Academy for 2 years and was ready to quit. I didn't feel like it was for me. Once I saw an African-American ballerina for the first time, I realized I hadn't seen one. Arthur Mitchell and DTH birthed dreams. Seeing the ballerina I looked up to all my years dancing, Virginia Johnson, gave me the connection to become a ballerina! It changed my life forever. I had to dance at that point, and the Firebird was my goal! I got to wear brown tights in the 1980s because DTH did and Ben Stevenson acknowledged the importance of it!!
—Lauren Anderson, former Houston Ballet principal dancer
When Mr. Mitchell would coach me, he would say, "Baxter you that boy from Texas, I like you...I see show business is in your blood...see you want to learn everything, the business and the stage." He taught us that DTH was our home, 466 West 152nd street, being a somewhat parent to the new ones at that time. It was a way that everyone stayed disciplined. Mr. Mitchell had an eye for talent and it rubbed off on all of us. So much I can say....from Broadway to film he mentored, I was a DANCER from DTH, something about a DTH dancer you had that Mitchell Pride he would instill in everyone that crossed his path....which always kept me working in the business. I love show business. You will truly be missed. Thank you, Arthur Mitchell. May the grace of God always be with us.
—Minister Dwight Baxter
For years, while in the corps de ballet of Dance Theatre of Harlem, I dreamed of one day being the ballerina to get Mr. Mitchell from the wings, and when that moment finally came, it was a cherished honor, a moment when all our disagreements vanished, and I was so was so proud to receive his knowing gaze.
—Tai Jimenez, former DTH principal dancer
When I think of all the remarkable things Arthur Mitchell did during a time in history when the odds were against him, it gives me reason to pause. Quite simply, Arthur Mitchell changed the world! Thinking how several companies are now creating tights, ballet shoes, and character shoes which complement and enhance the line and look of legs of dancers of color can be directly attributed to his insistence that DTH dancers dyed their tights and shoes to match their skin tones. Mr. Mitchell was an innovator, an architect, if you will, and definitely someone who followed the beat of his own drum. And he let nothing get in the way of what he wanted to achieve. I was leaving my position as the director of a well-known school in NYC after a particularly tumultuous tenure. Mr. Mitchell called and told me to come and see him. Notice I said "told" and not "asked"! He wanted to know what happened, and I told him. He looked at me with that glint in his eye and said, "You know, people had forgotten that school existed until you came along. Your work there is done! It's time for a bigger dream. But no matter how badly you feel about all of the work you have done there and it not having been appreciated, you WILL NOT let them steal your spirit!" Needless to say, I was a puddle of tears…
—Maurice Brandon Curry, executive artistic director at Eglevsky Ballet
Arthur Mitchell's undeniable presence, charisma, and his sparkling smile will forever remain ingrained in my memory. He was bold and brave enough to challenge and change perceptions, always with beauty and dignity. As a master coach, he poured so much into his dancers, meticulously teaching more than performance techniques, but how to represent something larger than ourselves with a sense of empowered purpose. I will miss him deeply, gratefully walking the path that he dedicated his life to pave.
—Alicia Graf Mack, former DTH dancer, director of dance at The Juilliard School
I studied at DTH as a child, and two weeks after I graduated college, I went back, and eventually Mr. Mitchell asked me to join the company. Was he easy to work for? No. Unreasonable? Often. Hurt my feelings? Constantly. But I soon learned that when he was hard on you it was because he saw something in you that he was trying to develop.
The life lessons he taught us in that studio on 152nd St, or on any given stage across the globe, influenced how I move in the world to this day. He told a group of us on our first international tour that we looked like "refugees," which taught me to always look presentable no matter where I was going. He told us "don't believe your press" which has allowed me to not take myself too seriously whether I'm in a season of great success or great challenges. The way I physically walk to this day, with "Zah," is a direct result of the training I received under his tutelage. And his mantra, "You represent something greater than yourself," instilled in all of us the ability to move through life with grace, dignity, and discipline.
And, as this picture captures, he had a wicked sense of humor, infectious laugh, and could dish the dirt with the best of them.
—Valencia Yearwood, former DTH dancer/actress
Arthur Mitchell . . . Thank you for your dream to change the world's view of black classical ballerinas and male dancers. By letting me into your dream, you allowed me to live my dream of performing around the world before royalty and everyday folks; to learn from great ballerinas all around me; to gain lifelong friends-family; to live life with the soundtrack emanating from DTH's live pianists; to show children here and abroad that all dreams are worthy and attainable; to embody the ideal of excellence no matter where one is; and to show that the arts are one of—if not THE—best way to reveal commonality among us all and break down barriers. I am overwhelmed with sadness, love, gratitude and awe for you. Thank you, thank you, thank you . . .
—Willow Sanchez, former DTH dancer/lawyer
Visionary, teacher, driven, inspiring, fearless, trailblazer. The impact he made in the lives he came in contact with will be remembered. The people/dancers/talent I met along the way during my time at DTH unparalleled. So thankful for Arthur Mitchell. The vision for black dancers, black ballerinas in particular must continue.
—Linda Swayze, former DTH dancer
- Arthur Mitchell Talks Race and Balanchine - Dance Magazine ›
- What Wendy's Watching: Arthur Mitchell Blazes an International Trail ... ›
- Arthur Mitchell & DTH on "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" ›
- Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer | Wallach Art Gallery ... ›
- Arthur Mitchell's life in pictures ›
- The night I danced with Arthur Mitchell at the White House - The ... ›
- Arthur Mitchell, Ballet's 'Grandfather of Diversity' - The New York Times ›
When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.
Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.
He shared six of his top tips for getting into top shape.
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.
Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.
Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.
If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.
Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)
Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.
But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.
First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.
To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.
Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.
Misaligning the Spine
Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.
Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.
Clenching the Toes
Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.
Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.
Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension
Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.
But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."
Using Unnecessary Tension
“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.
Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."
Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.
Pinching Your Shoulder Blades
Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."
Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."
Getting Stuck in a Rut
While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.
Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.
In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.
"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.
If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.
Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.
Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:
1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.
Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.
My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!
—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA
George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.