Sarah Louis-Jean performing her boleadoras routine

Photo by Claudia Steck, Courtesy of Sarah Louis-Jean

Meet the Woman Who Holds a Guinness World Record for a Dance Style Traditionally Done by Men

Sarah Louis-Jean's origin story begins with the ultimate professional-ballerina cliché: falling hopelessly in love with ballet at age 3. However, her discovery of boleadoras, a folk dance traditionally performed by men, took this Black Canadian dancer on an unexpected and groundbreaking route.

For Louis-Jean, boleadoras has led to working with Cirque du Soleil, performances with Celine Dion and for the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, and earning a Guinness World Record.

Boleadoras originated from Argentina as a part of the malambo folk dance and is named for the weighted balls that swing around the dancer and rhythmically tap on the floor. The boleadoras tool was originally used as a hunting weapon by gauchos, but its use has morphed into part of a percussive and powerful folk dance.

Finding the Style That Speaks to Her

Louis-Jean first encountered boleadoras 16 years ago when a small troupe of circus dancers performed in her hometown of Montreal. "In my head, I was going to be a ballerina," the former pre-professional student says. "Then, suddenly, I discovered boleadoras."

Although Louis-Jean tried a variety of dance styles, including contemporary, tap and flamenco, in her teens, she always gravitated back to boleadoras and the opportunity it provided to combine percussion, dance and circus skills. "It was like a mix of everything that I loved," she says. "Learning boleadoras has allowed me to completely express all the emotions fully through the art form."

Louis-Jean compares the fierce energy of boleadoras to that of flamenco and says she feels liberated while dancing it. "The energy that comes out from the boleadoras is something that completes me," she says. "I'm normally a more calm person, so when I go onstage, it's the opposite."

Mastering a Dance Developed by Men

Boleadoras as a circus act is a modern take on the traditional dance, so after learning the basics, a lot of Louis-Jean's training involved creating routines and doing research with her coaches.

To dive further into the style, she visited Argentina to perfect her posture and walking in the traditional style. Being the only woman in her classes could have posed a challenge, but Louis-Jean didn't allow her confidence to waver. "It was strange sometimes to be alone, but I was so passionate that I didn't even see it," Louis-Jean says. "I just wanted to show them that I can be powerful, as well."

Louis-Jean says solo women boleadoras artists are rare, but with the help of the internet, she hopes to inspire more.

Louis-Jean has black hair and wears black boots, black tights and a short red and black dress. She stares forward with her arms outstretched in front of her. Her boleadoras swing in front of her body. She stands on a silver floor and in front of a background of silver panels with light shining between them

Sarah Louis-Jean

Photo by Claudia Steck, Courtesy of Sarah Louis-Jean

Adding Her Own Touch

To make the boleadoras style her own, Louis-Jean adds elements of her classical dance training. Although the athleticism in her performance is impressive, she places just as much emphasis on connecting with the audience.

"When I'm onstage, I have a conversation with the people," Louis-Jean says. "My goal is to give my 300 percent, so people have to watch me…and they cannot watch anywhere else."

Global Recognition

Last year, Louis-Jean secured her place in history by earning a Guinness World Record for the most boleadoras taps made in one minute. She managed a total of 385, yet Louis-Jean chooses to focus on the meaning behind her achievement.

"It's not necessarily the record that I want, but the message to say that everything is possible when we put ourselves to it."

Still Moving

Although the pandemic interrupted her typically rigorous performance schedule, Louis-Jean says she continues to dance every day for the sake of her happiness and sense of self. While away from the stage, she's developed her virtual presence with boleadoras dance films, instructional videos and Zoom classes.

"Boleadoras is more than a simple discipline," she says. "For me, it really represents the inner strength that we all have."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021