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.
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."
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."
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."