Moving on to the next stage

On Broadway

Ailey dancing star Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines makes her Broadway debut in 'The Color Purple'


THREE YEARS AGO, DANCE Magazine named Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines one of "25 to Watch." At the time, Sayyed Gaines was a principal dancer with New York's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the magazine praised her "fierce dramatic sense [that] can take you to the lowest abyss or to the heights of ecstasy."

These days, audiences are watching Sayyed Gaines on Broadway in The Color Purple. And though the reviews don't single her out, well, that's to be expected. In making her Broadway debut, she sacrificed being an Alvin Ailey star to dance in the chorus of a musical.

And that's OK with her. In her 6 1 / 2 years with Alvin Ailey, she toured the world, spending three-fourths of every year away from her New York home and her husband, dancer / choreographer Jamel Gaines. Then in November 2004, their son, Soleil, was born.

"I always wanted to do Broadway, but I think the blessing happened in such a way, [Soleil] came, and that was my perfect transition," says this former Baltimorean.

Sayyed Gaines actively pursued a job in The Color Purple, the musical version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an African-American woman's struggle for self-actualization in the rural South. When the dancer learned that the Broadway show would be choreographed by Donald Byrd, with whom she had worked in college and at Alvin Ailey, she gave him a call.

"He was very happy to hear from me and very happy to hear that I would like to work with him again, so he made everything come together," she says.

Performing in a Broadway musical requires a few additional skills, which proved no problem for Sayyed Gaines. "Alvin Ailey is the epitome of hard-core dancing, so I feel like I've done all of that, and there's just a new challenge with the Broadway scene," she says.

"I always knew that as a dancer I was an actor as well." This ability is rewarded near the end of the show, when she portrays the daughter of the protagonist, Celie (albeit wordlessly).

Not that she's silent throughout the rest of the show. There's a good deal of singing. The daughter and granddaughter of singers, Sayyed Gaines embraced this aspect of the show, although she's also taking voice lessons.

Born in New York, Sayyed Gaines started dancing at age 4. "I always remember my mom saying she asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be a ballerina, and she said, 'OK, let's put her in classes.'" She moved to Baltimore with her family when she was 8 and took lessons with Thomas Hanner and Marilyn Gaston before entering the after-school TWIGS program at the Baltimore School for the Arts as a middle schooler.

"She excelled at absolutely everything you gave her. She's a natural," recalls Norma Pera, head of the dance department at the school and one of Sayyed Gaines' teachers from TWIGS through her 1992 School for the Arts graduation.

As proof of Sayyed Gaines' dedication, the teacher mentions an observation she made after the 1992 senior prom. The rule in the dance department, Pera explains, is that female students must wear their hair in a bun. The Monday after the prom, however, this rule is often ignored by girls who have "paid all this money to get their hair done [and] try to save the hairdo. Not Bahiyah," she recalls. "Her hair was back in a bun. I knew: This girl is determined. She is going to go someplace."

Sayyed Gaines attended Alvin Ailey's summer school for two years during high school. After graduating, she entered Juilliard, earning her degree in three years. Two years with Germany's Ballet Frankfurt followed, before she joined Alvin Ailey full time.

Now that she's tasted Broadway, however, she hopes to do more work in the theater. "I feel as a trained dancer I've done all that I can do dancewise," she says. "I would really like to try a principal role in which I'm dancing and singing."

And that's not all. "I would love to be able to do a role that doesn't require dancing," Sayyed Gaines says.

This variety doesn't surprise Pera. "She's had probably one of the fullest dance lives that you can imagine," the teacher says. "She's really touched base everywhere."

For her part, Sayyed Gaines says she feels "blessed" to be making her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, the film version of which made a deep impression on her as a child. "I remember crying a lot and then feeling so joyous afterward when [Celie's] son and daughter came back. I guess I sort of felt like we traveled with her through her journey."

Now Sayyed Gaines is helping Broadway audiences take that journey eight times a week.



Pronunciation of first name: Baa-HE-yah; Arabic for beautiful

Born: Nov. 30, 1974, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Home: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Education: Baltimore School for the Arts (graduated 1992); bachelor of fine arts degree, the Juilliard School (1995)

Career highlights: Ballet Frankfurt (1995-1997); principal dancer, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater (1998-2005); The Color Purple (2005- )

Family: Married since 2001 to Jamel Gaines, founder and director of Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn; one son, Soleil, born Nov. 14, 2004

Norma Pera, head of the dance department, Baltimore School for the Arts, on Gaines' relationship to beauty: "She understood the beauty of ballet -- that it had to be beautiful. That's what was so amazing about her at such a young age. That's how you recognize talent -- that you don't have to tell them it should be beautiful, they understand that and they make the movement beautiful. They know intuitively."

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