It’s 9 a.m., and Lydia Abarca sneaks out of bed past her sleeping fiancé. “I try to be real quiet so I don’t wake him up, but I’m always dropping things.” She’s referring to what she hurriedly stuffs into her dance bag: a towel, toe shoes, hairbrush, a change of lace underwear and a mystery novel. She barely makes the start of her first class at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. “I’m perennially just on time,” says Lydia.
Time is about to catch up with Abarca, 28. For almost a decade she has been a prima but little-celebrated performer with the all-black troupe formed by ex-Balanchine star Arthur Mitchell. It seems curious that blacks, so preponderant in American music and athletics, are so scarce in the art that synthesizes the two. (Judith Jamison, the best-known black in the field, made her name not in classical ballet but modern dance.) “If ballet were a business,” says influential critic Clive Barnes, “it would be labeled tokenism. With the right exposure, Abarca would be recognized as a major ballerina today.”
That is not to suggest she is unrecognized. Lord Snowdon was so struck by her that he shot a photo essay on Lydia and her entire family. Revlon selected her as one of its original Charlie girls, and she’s done a couple of soap operas and movies (including The Wiz). But Lydia is most at home on her toes. Her long, lovely legs and arched neck give her 5’6″ body the graceful and shy air of a nymph—a role she embodied in Jerome Robbins’ romantic choreography to Afternoon of a Faun. She has also brought off the melodramatic movements of William Dollar’s tragedy Le Combat, provided erotic acrobatics in Balanchine’s Japanese ballet Bugaku and managed the demure Sugar Plum Fairy in the Chicago Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.
Lydia Abarca may look as if she were born mid-leap, but she has had to work her way up from ground level. Born in Harlem, the eldest of seven children of a janitor and a part-time telephone operator, Lydia spent her childhood around a high-rise housing project. Her mother would not allow her to hang out on the streets and later enforced a strict curfew. In the fourth grade Lydia first danced in a school production. The principal was impressed enough to suggest professional lessons at Juilliard. Lydia auditioned against a full house of affluent little primas and won a major scholarship award. Then she graduated into another grant at the prestigious Harkness School but very soon, Lydia says, “I felt intimidated. There were no other black dancers with whom I could identify.” At 15 she quit, convinced that for blacks ballet was “an impossible climb straight to a dead end.”
After hating receptionist work and accepting an academic scholarship to Fordham University, she wandered into the Harlem School of the Arts one afternoon in 1969 to peruse its dance offerings. Mitchell, who was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, was scouting raw material for a new black company, and got the vapors on first sight of Lydia. “I thought he was crazy,” she recalls. “He grabbed me and told me to take off my shoes so he could examine my arches.” Recalls Mitchell: “She had extremely beautiful feet.” He offered her $150 a week for a month if she would drop out of college and let him transform her into a classical ballerina. One month quickly became another, and by the time Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem was launched, 19-year-old Lydia Abarca was its prima ballerina.
With such an accelerated professional start, Lydia’s life has gone through some turns of its own. Divorced from her husband (a former dancer with the company), she has been living with nightclub singer Ronald “Smokey” Stevens for nine months. “It’s really a long engagement,” she says. Abarca also chose to sidestep her ballet career for a time to tour in Bubbling Brown Sugar. “I felt a lot of pressure being one of the few black ballerinas, and I just wanted to get away from the role of the poised prima for a while,” she says. But after a year on her heels, she’s more anxious than ever to stay en pointe. “After all,” she says, “you can have more fun doing musicals, but the real challenge is making it in ballet.”