Dancer Voices

"Even at My Lowest Points, Choosing Not to Dance Has Never Been an Option"

Cirio in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

When I was born, the delivery doctor exclaimed to my parents, "You have a dancer on your hands!" I had been a footling breech baby and entertained myself by jumping in utero, until I jumped so hard that I broke my mom's water and was delivered as a C-section. Cut to present day: I wake up each morning, head to the building where I've worked for almost 16 years, strap on my pointe shoes and dance almost seven hours a day as a professional. Yes, every day I choose to dance, but in some ways, it is as if dance actually chose me.


Cirio (in a gray unitard) and Arrais (in a red unitard) are both in deep lunges. Five dancers stand, facing front, in the background.

With Paulo Arrais in Jerome Robbins' Glass Pieces

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Growing up, I wanted to be that girl who was skilled at sports and could hang with the boys. Alas, that was not the case. I was fast and could run the bases or a soccer field, but when it came to hitting the ball or kicking it into the goal, I would disappoint. Instead, I excelled most when I was dancing. I was the shy girl, able to express herself without words, and dance gave me the opportunity to work and train in something that made me feel whole.

I loved the four walls of the ballet studio. However, ballet is a competitive world, and I attended a highly competitive school. My fellow students and I were all vying for attention and corrections from teachers, and for the same parts. I sometimes felt very alone. But I found solace in class, rehearsals, performing, watching ballet and focusing on being the best I could be.

When, at 16, I was hired by Mikko Nissinen for Boston Ballet II, my love affair with dance sometimes became toxic. Not being chosen for parts because of the way I looked, weight issues, disappointment with reviews and competition with others took a toll on me. Yet, I still pushed forward, finding my comfort in the studio.

As the years passed, I've realized that even at my lowest points, choosing not to dance has never been an option. I know I'm at my absolute best mentally, physically and emotionally when I'm dancing the most. The stage is one of my best friends. Not everyone will like me as a dancer and as a person, and that is okay. I've learned I enjoy passing on my love of the art form to the next generation and inspiring other young Asian dancers. I often hear dancers say, "Dance does not define me." Although dance does not define all of me, it certainly is a big part of what defines me, and I'm not ashamed of that.

In Memoriam
A flyer showing Alberto Alonso, Fernando Alonso, Benjamin Steinberg and Alicia Alonso. Photo courtesy the author

Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.

My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.

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Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

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Hansuke Yamamoto in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet, which features an exciting and respectful Chinese divertissement. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

It's Nutcracker time again: the season of sweet delights and a sparkling good time—if we're able to ignore the sour taste left behind by the outdated racial stereotypes so often portrayed in the second act.

In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."

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Dance & Activism
Allegra Bautista in Nevertheless, by ka·nei·see | collective. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

An audience member once emailed Dallas choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, claiming his work was vulgar. It complained that he shouldn't be pushing his agenda. As the artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh's recent choreography largely deals with LGBTQ issues.

"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.

With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.

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