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.
I come from a lineage of survivors: African Americans who endured the brutality of slavery, Native Americans who survived forced genocidal migration, and my Jewish grandmother who escaped the Holocaust. My ancestors' enduring spirits live inside of me, giving me an indelible foundation of strength and compassion.
On the bookshelves my mom filled in our one-bedroom apartment in inner-city Washington, DC, sat a book called To Be Young, Gifted and Black, written by Lorraine Hansberry. Those words were aspirational, and empowered me to imagine a place beyond our limited conditions.
Lying in the bathtub one night after back-to-back matinee and evening performances, I remember asking myself if I was cut out for this. It was one of my first programs with Miami City Ballet, performing Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, Scotch Symphony and Who Cares? I was completely overwhelmed. Muscles I didn't realize existed were in pain. My mind didn't know how to handle the pressure: I'd been scared out on stage, which had never happened to me before. The challenges of a ballet career felt impossible.
Yet, these challenges convinced me to keep striving. I wanted the satisfaction of accomplishing something I didn't know would be possible.
I'd been hooked since my first ballet class at 5. Whether it was in the studio or with my sister in our living room, moving to music just made sense. Perhaps it's in my Cuban blood. I had no idea what ballet technique meant, what the requirements would be or the sacrifices I would make. I didn't know the pain I would feel from injuries. I didn't know the deep respect I would gain from the art form or how it would shape me as an individual. All I knew is that I loved it.
As I grew with the company, I found new peace in working in the studio, striving for perfection. At the same time, onstage I began to discover moments of spontaneity. I found myself breathing the music. I began feeling the energy of the audience. I caught myself responding to the dancers I shared the stage with.
I am so fortunate be part of the incredibly close Miami City Ballet family. I realized this most when we performed 14 ballets in three weeks at Paris' historic Théâtre du Châtelet. We knew we were bringing a different style than the Parisians were used to—and their enthusiastic response elevated our confidence. The sense of teamwork was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Wherever we perform, my peers and, especially, my sister, inspire me every day.
Dancing new ballets by Alexei Ratmansky, Liam Scarlett and Justin Peck makes me feel the most like myself. Trusting my instincts and pushing past what has been done before to create interesting art leaves me wanting to dance forever. But when I think back on all my roles, one memory is the clearest: The emotional release I felt after performing Juliet in John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet. Finding myself in a character, the vulnerability, the complexity, the journey I went through while performing it, I realized that dance is not only what I do, but who I am.
Abi Stafford in Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
I'm a shy person. Carrying on a conversation has never been my strong suit. When I started ballet lessons at 6, I didn't talk to many of the other kids. I worried that I would say the wrong thing and they would laugh at me. But as I learned ballet, I realized that dancing made me feel free. I didn't have to talk to anyone. I had a new way to communicate my feelings. No one expected me to do anything except dance—and that I could do. The studio became my comfort zone.
A couple years ago, I went through a terrible performance season. I was taken out of my roles because my body didn't look good. My confidence was taken and my comfort was gone. Even though dance was my rock in life, suddenly, I didn't want to dance anymore. It was causing me pain that penetrated into the deepest places of my soul. I almost quit. For about six months afterwards, every day I had to stop myself from marching into the staff offices and quitting on the spot. I absorbed every negative thing said to me about my body and my dancing. Worse yet, I lost my method of communicating. In order to pick myself back up, I had to explore the reasons why I loved to dance.
It turns out that I love many things about ballet. I love watching it, teaching it and, of course, I love dancing it. I love the way dancing feels on my body. Going over choreography in my mind is better than daydreaming about what I would buy if I won the lottery. I love trying to think of creative ways to make the movement my own. I'll often go into an empty studio with the lights dimmed when no one is around. Playing with the choreography feeds my creativity. It makes me feel like I am exactly where I am meant to be.
My favorite moment of a performance is the split second when I shift from standing in the wings as a normal person to being a ballerina on the stage. Sometimes I get goose bumps when I cross this threshold. These moments are not about the audience, the music or the choreography. They are about me—all my hard work and my belief in myself. Each time I step onto the stage, it means I have summoned my courage once again to share my dancing with an audience. I don't have to worry about stumbling over my words. I can just be. I'm so glad I didn't let my disappointment take away these moments—they are what I live for.