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By Joseph Carman
The DTH dancer's joy and phrasing stand out.
Stephanie Rae Williams and Anthony Savoy in Robert Garland's Return. Photo: Matt Murphy, Courtesy DTH
One hour before curtain, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Stephanie Rae Williams was recruited to replace an injured Michaela DePrince when the company performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center last April. She danced Balanchine’s pyrotechnical Glinka Pas de Trois in bravura style without missing a beat, her huge jump, crisp batterie, and fresh phrasing emblemizing the joy that DTH’s return has kindled.
Raised in Allen, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, Williams started ballet lessons at age 7. She and her younger siblings (she’s the oldest of six) all danced in local Nutcracker productions. Fiona Fairrie at Dallas Dance Academy served as her first mentor. Williams took private lessons with her twice a week for two years, and Fairrie worked with her on pointe work, turnout, and port de bras. “I don’t have the highest extensions, but she told me I had beautiful arms that I needed to learn to use properly,” says Williams. “Her teaching is all about artistry. Without her, I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am today.”
One school night, her mother drove her to Tyler, Texas, to see DTH perform (just before the company took an extended hiatus in 2004). It made a huge impact on Williams. Being a mixed-race child, especially in Texas, made her feel perpetually different. “Whenever I went to summer programs it was me and maybe two other girls.” DTH was a revelation.
After graduation from high school, she joined Texas Ballet Theatre for a season and then auditioned for The Ailey School, where she received a fellowship. An offer in 2008 to dance with Ballet Black allowed her stylish dancing to impress British audiences, especially in Liam Scarlett’s Indigo Children.
But a restlessness led her back to New York to apprentice briefly with Complexions Contemporary Ballet. At that point, she says, “I felt a little lost.” Enter her second mentor, choreographer Francesca Harper, who invited her to rehearse with her group. “She helped get me out of this rut,” says Williams. “It changed what I think I can do. She made me fearless.” When DTH announced auditions for its pre-professional ensemble, Harper told Williams she had to go.
From the moment she stepped into the DTH studios, Williams says, “it felt like home.” Williams joined the DTH ensemble in 2010 and DTH’s artistic director Virginia Johnson has since become Williams’ third mentor. In 2012, Williams became a members of the newly revived company. Johnson says that Williams had a rocky first year in the ensemble because “she wanted ballet so badly, had been discouraged from it and was a bit defensive.” Today, though, Johnson says, “she has grown so much, pushing herself to gain more flexibility and polish. Stephanie brings a kind of physical intelligence that makes her performance in each ballet richly different.”
Williams, 25, cherishes the career DTH has offered her. “For any little girl, my sisters included, it’s nice to see there’s a place where you can become a ballerina,” she says. As for being part of DTH’s historic return, she says, “It’s one for the books. I can’t wait for my second season.”
Joe Carman is a DM senior advising editor.