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Our Prima Ballerina – Lydia Mitchell

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While the John Ward Creek Bridge was being built, I would walk over in the evening to see what had been done during the day. On one of these evenings, I met another 'building inspector', a lovely lady who had a brilliant career as a ballet dancer. As we talked, I realized that her story is a true example of the power of a strong family, a powerful will, and the American Dream.

John Edison: Thank you for your willingness to tell your story to the members of the Ridenour Homeowners’ Association. When we met on the Ward Creek Bridge, I realized that you had a wonderful career as a ballet dancer; how did this start?

Lydia Mitchell: I am the oldest of 7 children. I loved to move, and was always dancing just for the joy of it. I attended a Catholic school where one of the nuns saw this and put me in a production of Waltz of the Flowers that she had choreographed. She must have seen that I had talent, but also that I needed training, and suggested that I take dancing lessons. My father worked as a janitor at Macy’s and later as a janitor for Brooklyn College. My mother was a part time directory assistance operator. They both worked very hard, but we had no money for dancing lessons. My mother learned about auditions for young dancers at Julliard, which was just a few blocks from our home in 'The Projects' in Manhattan, and called to arrange for me to audition. I auditioned and won a four-year scholarship that included everything, even dance shoes.

John: This sounds like it was a great opportunity for a career. What did you do after Julliard?

Lydia: I loved my 4 years at Julliard. Following Julliard I attended the Rebecca Harkness House of Ballet Arts 6 days a week for 2 years, after which I graduated from high school. These were wonderful years, but I could not see any a future for me as a black dancer, so I quit dancing, and got a job at a bank. I hated the bank job, but saw it as my best opportunity to financially support myself. I learned later that Patrick Swayze, the movie star of Dirty Dancing fame, studied at the Rebecca Harkness House of Ballet Arts before he became an actor. After a week at the bank, my sister who was taking violin lessons at Harlem School of the Arts, told me that Arthur Mitchell had just started dance classes at the Harlem School of the Arts. Arthur Mitchell was the first black dancer to dance for George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet. He left the New York Ballet for a dancing opportunity in Brazil. After Martin Luther King died, Arthur Mitchell returned to New York to do something for his people, and started the Dance Theater of Harlem. I was accepted by Arthur Mitchell, quit the bank, and became a professional ballet dancer at the Dance Theater of Harlem. John: How long did you dance in New York?

Lydia: 1969-1980

John: Please name some of the ballets in which you starred.

Lydia: Ballets are generally listed by the name of the musical score and the name of the choreographer. I have danced in: Ruth Page’s Carmen, George Balanchine’s Agon, Bugaku, and Swan Lake, Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, Bob Fosse’s – Dancin’, and Billy Wilson’s Bubblin’ Brown Sugar.

John: Who were some of the famous choreographers that you performed with?

Lydia: George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Bob Fosse were a few of the choreographers with whom I had the opportunity to dance. One of my most treasured opportunities was having Cecily Tyson as an acting coach.

John: I am looking at some of your pictures of your dancing. It looks like you were as much an acrobat as a dancer. What was this part of your life like?

Lydia: I was still single and dancing under my maiden name, Lydia Abarca. Dancing was what I lived for. Some of my friends, seeing how trim I was, asked, “What do you eat - nothing?” The truth was that I ate quite a bit. Dancing takes a lot of energy and a sharp mind, both, which require adequate nutrition. In 1975, being the 1st black prima ballerina to be pictured on the cover of Dance Magazine honored me. Our dance troupe traveled a lot; we performed in London for the Queen of England, Lord Snowden, and the Queen Mother. This part of my life was demanding as well as very exciting and fulfilling.

John: You were a noted dancer in New York with performances in many other famous places in the world. Why did you leave New York and come to Georgia?

Lydia: IBM had some of its employees do a skit at an awards banquet in Washington, DC with professional dancers in the background. I was one of the hired dancers and met one of the IBM employees in the skit, a young part-time professional actor named Alvin Mitchell. We married and I followed him in his 40-year career with IBM to Marietta. He still is a part-time professional actor and the father of our 2 young adult children. We have been married 27 years.

John: What are you now doing in your dancing career?

Lydia: I dance in my head and in my heart and share what I have learned with my students. I am doing everything I can do to help young dancers develop their talents as dancers, particularly young black dancers who have fewer dance opportunities than others. I now teach and coach young dancers at Ballethnic Dance Academy in East Point, Georgia.

John: We see many black dancers on television in big productions such as the Academy Awards. It appears that black dancers have many opportunities in dancing roles they are very good at. Are there not enough opportunities for black dancers in the dance schools and dance companies that already exist?

Lydia: What you are seeing is tap, bare foot, jazz, and modern dancing. What you don’t see is black ballet dancers; they are not “On Pointe.

John: “On Pointe,” is a new term to me. I presume that it means dancing on the tips of your toes

Lydia: That is correct. Ballet is an exclusive dance form that requires much training and skill, including the ability to dance on your toes. Many dancers study ballet, and then get jobs doing other types of dancing, because there are not enough opportunities in ballet.

John: Are there any other reasons why it is important to have black ballet companies?

Lydia: Yes, there is. Ballet dancers wear tights that blend with the color of the dancer’s skin. This creates visual lines from the tips of the fingers and the tips of the toes. Light pink works well for white dancers, but not for black dancers as they create moving sculptures in their performances. This is not a racial issue, but a technical problem for which no one has found an answer. One solution is to develop black dance companies. Prima ballerinas don’t have this problem; they are supposed to stand out from the rest of the dance troupe. Unfortunately there are relatively few positions for prima ballerinas and importing Russian dancers fills many of these positions.

John: You are following the example of Arthur Mitchell; you are giving opportunities to young people of our great nation. Thank you for this contribution and for sharing part of your life with us, the members of the Ridenour Homeowners’ Association.

Ridenour HOA

Located in beautiful West Cobb County, Georgia and surrounded by the Kennesaw National Battlefield Park, Wyckford and Sentinel West are highly desirable neighborhoods of traditional homes set in a perfectly preserved woodland environment with oak trees and beautiful rolling hills. Wyckford and Sentinel West are an active community of families, young couples, empty-nesters, and other lively people who enjoy the best of southern living, a peaceful country atmosphere, and close proximity to city attractions.


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