Akua Noni Parker is one of a handful of female dancers known for transitioning from a classical ballet career to a vibrant modern dance career, performing for over a decade with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Djassi Dacosta Johnson had the pleasure of meeting Parker at the Ailey studios just days before the iconic company’s 60th anniversary season at City Center. Below are some snippets from an expansive conversation where Parker and Johnson caught up like old friends about beginnings in dance, ballet vs. modern, being a black woman in the dance world and how this vegan model is also crafting a retirement plan as a ballet mistress and chef.
ON DISCOVERING DANCE
My dad says that he knew that I was going to dance by the time I could walk. He used to put me on his feet and dance. I danced all the time, I could keep a rhythm, I could pick up songs like ‘that.’ I think they had my sister and I in classes by the time I was 3 years old. I knew that I wanted to be a ballerina around the fourth grade but I didn’t go to an arts high school. I went to a regular public school and then The Academy of the Dance in Wilmington, Delaware, after school from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. It was in James Jameson’s and Victor Wesley’s house — they lived upstairs and turned the first floor into a studio. I had ballet class every day and pointe, character, or jazz from 7 p.m to 8 p.m. There was no modern. This was all about ballet. But then, that turned around.
ON REBELLING AND RETURNING
By 16, I started to want to be…a…(air quotes) “regular person.” I became rebellious. I knew I wanted to be a dancer but I hated school.
My parents were very strict and my mother didn’t let me do anything so, of course, I started sneaking out at night…underage drinking…the whole thing. Around 17, I stopped taking class — stopped dancing completely. At the same time I was having a rough time with my mother and was living with my high school boyfriend and his mother. I was intent on experiencing this sort of “regular” life. I was a receptionist at a hair salon and I had fallen into the wrong group. Finally, one day my father called me and said “Absolutely not. We’re not letting this go on any longer.” He and my mother had separated right after I graduated high school so he said, “You’re moving in with me, I’m putting you in dance classes for six months. I’m paying for them. You better go. And then, you better get a job — dancing.” He collaborated with my ballet teachers behind my back and I started back with The Nutcracker. They had filmed the performance and sent the video to Dance Theater of Harlem. I got into the ensemble off of the video and because they remembered me from the summer program in 1995, they invited me to join the ensemble. A year later I was in the first company.
ON BEING BLACK IN BALLET
You know, I was just trying to be a ballerina. I was only one of two black girls in my studio back home but at that time I was just focused on working. I don’t think I really knew that there was such a big deficit in the ballet world. I knew that my ballet teacher dealt with it with parents who had issues with me being the Snow Queen or things like that, but it still didn’t click in for me.
After DTH, I joined Cincinnati Ballet and it was Interesting because it took me outside of my comfort zone — not dancing with other people of color. However, the studio itself was in downtown Cincinnati which is… fully black. So, I went into the city everyday and would see all of these people of color and then at the studio I’m the only one [person of color] outside of one guy — cause, there was always at least one black guy. As far as casting, I danced some really great roles. But I knew then and I know now that I was stronger than some of the other dancers that were cast equal to or higher than me. But because DTH didn’t have that repertoire, so much of it was ‘new’. I had never done Swan Lake. I was one of the big swans and had to be on the other side of the stage mirroring a white girl. But if I fast forward past my time with San Jose, this IS the reason why when the job opportunity came for me to join Ailey, I accepted. The shift was less about transitioning to modern and more about dancing without the (unspoken) stress of the previous years.
ON TRANSITIONING TO MODERN
This is my 11th year with Ailey. I was one of Ms. Jameson’s last hires. She actually taught me “Fix me” and “Umbrella” (from Revelations). I remember specifically with “Fix me,” she said, “So you’re going to run down and do a tilt.” I was like, “What’s a tilt?” And she said, “Get your leg up in a la seconde and lean over!” And I was like, “Oh! Ok, I can do that.” Over the years she was really patient with me. I think that ballet companies actually really have it easy. It’s about detail. It’s a slower rehearsal process. It’s not kicking out millions and millions of pieces of repertoire [like Ailey].
Physically though, I believe that it was the smartest transition for my body. I’ve learned so much about anatomy. I do yoga, now I have internal rotation… I think I’ve learned about changing my diet and how to maintain while touring. I was influenced by older dancers, like Renee Robinson and Matthew Rushing, who taught us all of the floor barre techniques and Gyrokinesis and were drinking green juices… which I scoffed at when I first got into the company, but, literally I AM that person now.
ON AN UNFORGETTABLE PERFORMANCE
Cry is probably the first time that I’ve ever asked for a role. I asked Mr. Chaya and Ms. Jamison to be in the room. I said, “I don’t need to perform it. I just want to be in the room because Ms. Jamison is teaching it and I want to learn it from her.” I think there were five of us who learned it together. City Center came around and I wasn’t cast, which was fine. But something said to me, “Continue to run it on your own. Continue to learn it.” And one day, Chaya said, “We want we want you to do it for the Sunday matinee, you have rehearsal with Judy on Friday.” It was Wednesday. Friday came and I had the rehearsal and Ms. Jamison was just letting me have it — she really worked me. But Sunday came and I did it and I remember right before the last hitch kick sequence, I was done. Completely pooped. There’s a picture of the downstage reaches with the left leg up and my face is like…literally…crying. I think I posted it last year for World Ballet Day: “For all those dancers that struggle, this one for us.” That was four years ago. And now I’m doing it in a few days for the 60th anniversary season.
ON FOOD AND WELLNESS
My Dad called me Rabbit because I always ate all my vegetables or Bird because I was just so skinny as a child. I always had to have a green vegetable on my plate. Now I love to experiment with vegan recipes. I mean, I love food and fresh, seasonal ingredients make all the difference. I think I’m building a side career as a chef for my skeptical meat-eating friends. I think it’s important for the environment, and us personally, to talk about healthy eating more; I have hashtags I use with my modeling shots when I post like #blackvegandancer. I’m also gluten free so I guess there’s a health and food appreciation focus in the future as well.
ON LIFE AFTER DANCING
I think I’m more interested in what’s going on in the front of the room now. I’m looking into what I can give back to the dance world. I am a class taker so I’ve given a lot of company class over the last five years and I really enjoy it. I’ve also taught for Jessica Lang’s company and Dance Theatre of Harlem. I’m looking forward to teaching more, it’s one of my favorite things to do.
ON HER OUTFIT
I’ve always wanted to model and even though I’ve always been told that I could, I never really pushed it. I’ve never been styled for a photo shoot. It’s really about the body as my art. Everything on my Instagram page, for example, is from my closet. That blue number is actually a bathing suit.
Images by Jim Lafferty, words by Djassi Dacosta Johnson