When she moved to Baton Rouge in her late 20s, dancer Roxi Victorian often saw herself as the only Black performer in local companies.
Coming from Washington, D.C., Victorian had a lengthy resume including Julliard, Howard University and The International School of Ballet. In Baton Rouge, she says, the Alvin Aileys, the Ronald K. Browns and other Black-focused dance movements were missing.
“Often with dance here, you would have one or two or at most four minority dancers in the company,” she says. “That wasn’t speaking to me culturally or speaking to my own personal experience.”
Nearly 10 years after moving to Baton Rouge—during which she ran her own dance studio and taught at McKinley Middle School—Victorian says she’s paid her dues as a dancer and educator in the community.
Now it’s time to build a professional dance company of her own that’s focused specifically on Black dancers.
Nyama Contemporary Dance Company will get off to a big start next year as one of the arts companies in residence at the Arts Council’s new Cary Saurage Community Arts Center.
Though Victorian was responsible for the launch of the Baton Rouge Hip Hop Festival in 2011, she wants to be clear that Nyama isn’t about urban dance. It’s also not a dance studio.
“It’s not a Monday through Friday thing, where people can come and take classes,” she says. “It’s invitation-only for professional dancers. We’re trying to present something new and contemporary and present a voice not currently heard in our community.”
Victorian started gathering her small group of six dancers just before the COVID-19 stay-at-home order began, along with Executive Director Jonathan Blackwell. Not wanting to lose momentum during the shutdown, they saw each other for three to four hours of work on weekends, then would disband for two weeks. During that time apart, they’d still connect on Zoom and through email to share their work and choreography.
The one-two punch of the pandemic and this summer’s social unrest following George Floyd’s death would have placed more obstacles in front of any fledgling performing arts group. But Victorian was instead emboldened to keep moving as she sought support for her company.
“The need to support Black professionals, Black business—we thought prior to that movement we’d have to explain what we were trying to do. I now feel like I have to explain a little less,” Victorian says. “There’s always that question of whether me supporting a Black business is that I’m anti-something else, and the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ I grew up being the only Black dancer most of the time. I wanted to give minority artists a platform, a place where they can collaborate.”
And the Nyama dancers intend to share that platform with the public beginning in 2021 with the goal of at least two local performances a year. By year two or three, Victorian hopes to add a third performance at national or international conferences in order to share the talent of Baton Rouge with a broader audience.
Through providing the Black community with an outlet for contemporary, professional dance, Victorian sees it as a way to improve Baton Rouge as a whole.
“I want young dancers to see there is a home base company that could actually lend itself to their needs. While it’s a lofty goal, I’d love for Baton Rouge to set an example, because I believe in our community that much. I believe that opening this space and allowing all voices to be heard artistically is something we can do in a really rich and full manner.”
And as for the origin behind the company’s name? Victorian says “Nyama” is Swahili for “flesh.” Victorian grew up in a Baptist household and was inspired by a much-quoted phrase in the Bible: “The world became flesh.”
“All of that preliminary work, that was the word,” she says, “and this dance movement is it becoming flesh.” nyamadance.com
This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue of 225 Magazine.