I grew up in a small town in Connecticut where it was impossible for me to get lost. In a place where 95.7 percent of the population is Caucasian, an Asian stands out in a crowd. My school, my dance studio, my friends all reflected that demographic. As a result, I was my differences. My black hair, my dark skin, my almond-shaped eyes defined me. And from a young age, they defined whom I portrayed onstage. The first featured role I ever got was in “The King and I.” I played the Spanish dancer in my dance studio’s “Nutcracker.” The next year, I was an Arabian princess. When we did “Swan Lake,” I played the black swan, not the white one. The list goes on.
I felt a little more at home in the music world. My piano studio was fairly diverse, and my teacher of nine years was Taiwanese. But because I only saw the other kids in my studio at holiday or end-of-year recitals, they were nothing more than familiar faces, and the community we formed could only be described as politely obligatory. Most of my music life was spent in a tiny practice room at the University of Hartford, where I would sit every week for lessons — or by myself in front of the piano in my living room.
The performing arts world I knew growing up was an isolating one. I believed I was always going to be the one who was not like the others. I was always going to play “exotic,” or I was going to be at the keyboard by myself. On top of that, there was a belief in my house that the arts were not a career. My parents grew up in the Philippines. My mom and dad immigrated to the United States to give their children better lives. They come from a culture where a career in the arts is virtually unheard of and essentially impossible. To them, the idea of their child growing up to be an artist was so far-fetched it was almost absurd.
I was 16 when I was accepted to the summer program at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. My life changed entirely. It was my first experience living entirely on my own. My first experience living in a big city. My first experience immersed in an arts community made up primarily of people of color. For the first time, I was surrounded by other artists who looked like me — artists who were my peers, my teachers, my mentors. I was actually a bit invisible. I had to work to be seen in a sea of brilliant artists, amazing storytellers, incredible humans. For the first time, I felt what it meant to really be lost in a crowd of people. That freed me.
I was going to be a dancer. I craved my parent’s approval. I wanted to excel at everything I did because I didn’t want to let them down. I imagined myself as a doctor, a lawyer, a diplomat, a marine biologist, because I knew my mom and dad had moved across the world, away from their moms and their dads and their sisters and brothers and cousins so I could have a better life. I have always wanted to make their hard work worth it. I have always wanted to make them proud.
Comprehension is the key to pride. My parents could not comprehend why I would want to be a dancer when I could be something else that pays better and more consistently. They could not comprehend how being a dancer could be sustainable, how being a dancer required using my brain, how I was not throwing away those years of hard work they put into raising me. Even in a well-developed country with a vibrant arts scene, the arts is treated like a frivolity. It’s the only mindset my family has really known. My parents could not be proud of me because they could not comprehend the arts. They could not comprehend me.
I wanted to become a dancer for selfish reasons. My life was already a performing art. For most of my life, I didn’t need to be on a stage for people to stare. But I wanted people to look at me the way I looked at those dancers at the Ailey School — I wanted to command space and time and respect because of what I did, not because of what I was. I wanted to be strong and fierce. Elegant. Sensual. Beautiful. Intensely smart and incredibly generous.
I have come to realize, however, the pursuit of dance or any art form cannot be a selfish one, especially for a person of color. There’s a responsibility that comes with inviting people to look at you, to look at your body. At its simplest, that’s what watching dance is. Watching bodies. What they do, what they create, what they say. As dancers, we are inextricably tied to our bodies. We are what we do, what we create, what we say. We are what makes us different.
I can list every time a person of color has affected my dance career, a timeline of every time I’ve seen or heard someone who looked like me. A little notch in the line every time my life has taken a different direction. Every time my views on dance and art and life have changed. I can list those moments because they stick with me, they define me. Pursuing dance means I might define other people’s timelines, other young Filipino girls and boys who grew up knowing themselves only as the kid with dark eyes and jet-black hair.
There’s an importance, then, that’s inherent in the way I move now and in the future. I would be lying if I said I could even begin to comprehend what that responsibility might mean. But the beauty in art is that comprehension isn’t the goal. It’s just the beginning.