Switching genres, staying positive
Hibah in Evita. Richard Termine, Courtesy Hartman Group
Tackling one genre of dance is tough enough, but Bahiyah Hibah has made her mark in two arenas: A charismatic member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 1998 to 2004, she was known for her sensual, dramatic movement in the concert realm. Now, she’s a staple on the Broadway stage, having performed in several shows including Memphis and Rock of Ages. Most recently, she’s been tangoing up a storm in the revival of Evita, choreographed by Rob Ashford. Though concert dance and musical theater require different skills, Hibah says her ability to shift between the two was bolstered by serious training, a steady routine, and an internal faith.
The Brooklyn native moved to Baltimore as a young child and began ballet lessons at age 4. She also enrolled in an after-school program for youngsters at the Baltimore School for the Arts, and once she was accepted into the high school, her interest in dance soared. While ballet was her first love, being exposed to jazz and modern broadened her possibilities. She attended Juilliard, then danced with Ballett Frankfurt for two years before joining AAADT.
Toward the end of her career there, a fortuitous connection with Donald Byrd, then choreographing The Color Purple, helped her transition into musical theater. Broadway’s schedule was more amenable to raising a child, and the new mother was grateful for the logistical benefits. “The seamless transition I made was a blessing,” she says in her mellow but commanding voice. “Coming home after a Broadway show versus touring endlessly makes much more sense with a child.”
Despite the change of environment, Hibah’s routine and maintenance program has remained the same. “I’m a classically trained dancer, so I have to warm up regardless of the setting,” she says. “I insist on keeping the instrument tuned and healthy.”
A Typical Day
The former vegetarian begins her day with a breakfast of fruit and a source of protein, like eggs. Before heading to the studio or theater for rehearsal, she enjoys either a yoga or ballet class. If she takes the former, she prefers Vinyasa classes. “It’s more therapeutic and gently awakens each muscle,” she explains. If she opts for ballet, she seeks out teachers who offer a thorough warm-up. “I’m not trying to look cute or worry about tricks in class,” she laughs. “I just want my body to be warm and honed in on technique. I’m checking in to see if everything is still operating. Onstage, you might be doing things that aren’t necessarily technically healthy, so you need to take time in class to recalibrate your body.”
Stretching throughout the day helps Hibah to counteract imbalances that crop up in rehearsal. “In rehearsal or in a show, you often repeat certain movements, and sometimes to just one side, so you overwork certain muscles,” she says. “I take care to stretch out those muscles I’ve been overworking. In Evita we do a lot of right leg battements. This actually works the supporting leg more than you’d expect. The ‘Money’ section in particular is fast and in heels, so getting the leg up and looking pretty takes a toll on the supporting side. I make absolutely certain to stretch my left glute muscle and sides of the working leg to alleviate that pressure.”
Hibah stays hydrated during rehearsal with water or coconut water, but stays away from sugary drinks. Small, dense snacks like nuts and dried fruit keep her energy steady. After a long day, she replenishes with plenty of protein, Epsom salt baths, and, when she can find time, a trip to a Turkish-style bath. “The switch between hot and cold that these baths offer is too much for some people, but I love it,” she says. She substitutes a hot bath followed by icing if she can’t make it to a spa.
On show days, Hibah finds ways to stay active in her daily life. “I always try to get some sort of activity in before I get to the theater,” she says. That could mean yoga, Pilates, riding her bike, or “chasing around after my 7-year-old,” she says. “You don’t always have to take a class to be active.”
Before a show, she saves her actual warm-up for last, completing a ballet barre and yoga poses after putting on her makeup and wig so she’s warmest right before the curtain rises. Afterward, favorite stretches like seated spinal twists and plow poses help her to “work out kinks.”
Hibah says she feels fortunate to have avoided major injuries. “For me, it’s noticing when I’m overusing my body,” she explains. “That’s when my body shuts down and I need to listen to it clearly saying, Stay off your leg today! So I do. I get a massage and let it recover. You have to respect your instrument.”
Keeping the Faith
Hibah says that outside of the studio, her faith has helped her remain grounded. “I believe in God and pray, which for me is essential,” she says. “I take time out to clear my mind and focus on what I want and the best approach.”
She also makes a concerted effort to surround herself with loving people. “I try to keep company with friends and colleagues who are positive, and then I, in turn, focus on positive thinking, being loving and respectful.” She notes that this is especially vital in the challenging dance industry.
“This year, I’ve recognized you get what you give,” she says. “I try to approach each new production without bringing baggage from the last one. This business can be cutthroat, so it’s important to be around people who love you for you, not your talent or resumé. For me, much of this came with being a parent; it enlightens you in a way. You want so much to raise someone loving and respectful, so you find yourself asking, Am I that person, too? I try my best to be that person onstage, in the studio, and at home.”
Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer in NYC.