A singular sensation

At Alvin Ailey, Linda Celeste Sims is the busiest dancer of them all.

BEAUTY IN MOTION Sims performs Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section.

BEAUTY IN MOTION Sims performs Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section. Photograph: Lois Greenfield

[Editor's note: This story has been extended with online bonus content.]

It’s funny to hear Linda Celeste Sims say that she never imagined she would end up at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater because she basically is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. During the company’s City Center run, Sims, a tiny dancer of astounding power and depth, will appear on nearly every program. “I do Memoria three times in the first week,” she notes with a weary laugh. “It’s hard to be Linda.” Sims, whose father is Dominican and mother Nicaraguan, grew up in the Bronx and trained at La Guardia High School of the Performing Arts and Ballet Hispanico, where she also danced for two years. In 1996, she joined Ailey. During a packed day of rehearsals, Sims, 32, spoke about her singular dancing.

How and why did you start dancing?
Well, I’m Latin American, and the nature of Latin American people is to always listen to salsa, merengue—and there’s just always dancing at the house. I think I literally came out of my mom’s womb and was dancing with my dad. I just remember being with him all the time, and I was just always moving and dancing. I was three, there was music playing and I would run away and come back with a different costume. Put a hat on, a sombrero, a little skirt or a bandanna. At three! That’s a very young age to have rhythm and to be free to dance in front of family members. That’s basically how I was. My dad was mainly the one who taught me about music and musicality. My grandmother knew of this dance school on 89th Street, Ballet Hispanico, and she wanted me to be in the school. I was four or five and they said I was too young so she found another place, like a Dolly Dinkle school downtown on 42nd Street somewhere; I went there until I was of age to join Ballet Hispanico. That’s where I studied for 12 years. I did flamenco, ballet and in my 11th or 12th year I learned modern dance.

Were you mainly studying the Graham technique?
I am a Graham baby, yes. I didn’t do Horton, which is what Ailey is based on, but I did Graham. Ballet Hispanico had a junior company, so I’ve been performing since I was a teenager. It taught us how to perform in front of people. I went to La Guardia Performing Arts School as well, and as a kid you’re always going through so many changes—you know, your hormones. Dance was my escape. Once I was in the studio, I worked hard because it was my way of releasing. I was always the younger one in the crowd, so I had to work hard to be cool. Not that I wasn’t, but I was little, so they kind of treated me like I was little. I know it sounds weird, but it really affected me. It made me like, Well, if I’m not going to be in the clique, I’m going to dance so well that you’re going notice me. I was the smallest one, but the teachers loved me and noticed that I worked hard and they would always give me attention, so I ended up being the best in the class. I thought, I can be better. I was trying to prove something to myself. To this day I think I’m still not good, I still have to work harder. And that’s always been my attitude.

How did Ailey happen?
I had a friend who said, “You’ve got to audition for Ailey.” I never thought I’d make it there, but one day, my roommate said, “They’re having an audition, and I want you to come with me.” I went, but I didn’t think I was going to get it. There were 144 girls that day. They needed one girl! [,em>Laughs] First cut, I’m still there. Second cut, third cut, I’m still there. At the end, I realized, Wow—there are only eight girls in here, and I’m still here! And that’s when I woke up and really went for it. [Artistic director] Judi [Jamison] said, “Go change.” I thought she was going to say, “Thank you, you’re lovely,” or something, and so I take my time changing. I’m such a dingleberry. Judi came in the dressing room and said, “Well, what’s taking you so long?” I remember running out. She said, “Would you take the contract?” She showed me around and gave me a list of countries for the tour that Ailey was going to do. It was Egypt, Israel, Greece, Germany, France. Could you believe that? Egypt?

Had you traveled much before?
No. With Ballet Hispanico we did more national stuff.

That must have been one crazy day.
My dad was so happy. He was going crazy. My mom couldn’t believe it. They weren’t dance parents. They didn’t know anything about my field; they just supported me. My grandmother put me in the school and my parents always picked me up—for recitals, I had a whole gang of family screaming for me. I’ve been at Ailey since 1996. And this is where I met the love of my life. The very next year, Glenn Sims came into the company. [Laughs] Have you seen him dance? Or us dance together?

Of course!
We were really good friends, and it was weird because a lot of my friends that went to La Guardia ended up going to Juilliard. He did. So we had the same posse of friends, but never met. Isn’t that weird? I think it was good. I said, “I don’t think you were ready for me then.” [Laughs] We got married in 2001.

I know that you studied ballet intensely.
Lots of ballet. I went to Pennsylvania Ballet School for two summers.

Why didn’t you become a ballerina?
I wanted to. I still love ballet.

And you dance a beautiful ballet role in Ailey’s The River.
I know. And that’s my outlet of getting that ballet stuff out of me, but here’s the thing: I believe in ballet so much. I think it’s the foundation to everything. I wanted to be in Miami City Ballet because they were Latin and kind of little, and I thought, I could fit in there. I took a David Howard class; I wanted to feel what it was like, and I knew Eddie Villella was going to observe. [Sighs] But the aesthetic, having to have the perfect feet…and these girls were so weak. I thought, Is this what you want to be? [To be like] one of those? Even if you don’t have high extension, if you don’t have major feet? I wasn’t into having to fight so hard for it. I would have had to have been amazingly fierce to cover what I don’t have—great feet, legs like this [Imitates a 90-degree extension with her arm], but it’s still about that! And doing the same ballets over and over.

But don’t you have that here?
Yes. But we have variety, which is good. I’ve worked with so many fantastic choreographers and then I also get my ballet-ish feeling out. You mentioned The River, yes. But there’s also other stuff. Memoria is so balletic and beautiful. And in Flowers, you can put on your pointe shoes and do character. I love character pieces. I love it when Ron Brown comes in and gives us African dance. It was as if God said, “No. You’re not going to be a ballerina, Linda. You’re going to be here.” So I’m kind of glad.

Do you take class in pointe shoes?
All the time. I think Alvin really loved ballet, because a lot of stuff that we do is so technical. I just finished rehearsing The River and Memoria. They’re literally ballet.

With the different styles that you get to dance here, what was surprising about the Ailey repertory?
When I came here, I was learning seven ballets in a week. [Whispers] Do you know what that’s like? I remember I would sit down—because maybe I wasn’t in that one section that was three minutes long—and literally pass out. Knock-out pass out. My brain was working like a computer. The only thing that was a bit different was getting a little bit more grounded. I was a little up and Judi would say, “Just feel the floor a little bit more.” In other words, it was letting go more, trusting myself—and lots of groundedness. That was my note for a good four or five months. And then I figured it out. It takes time for the body to digest, but I was quick and that’s also a gift because as some people need time. Dance has to be organic, but you also have to make it look good, and it also has to be the right shape, the right line, the right feeling, and that all takes a minute. I was fortunate to pick it up pretty fast. I am one of those people—they give you a note, and I take it.

You watched.
I watched a lot. When I teach people different roles as understudies, I tell them to watch. You have to observe what works and what doesn’t work. You don’t want to mimic, but you want to understand what that person is doing and make it different for you. Make it you. And that’s what Alvin did. He gave you the freedom of being you in the role, and I appreciate that because I don’t move like you and you don’t move like me.

Who did you watch?
It’s funny because after that first year, a big group left. It was a huge transition. I don’t want to give names because they weren’t my idols. There were people way back when that I looked up to: Sarita Allen and Judith Jamison. I picked up a lot of Sarita Allen roles and I watched a lot of old tapes. I love the way she moves—there’s sensuality, but it’s not vulgar and sexy. That’s how I like to move and interpret dance. Ballet is so sexy. Dance is sexy, and not in a [Lowers voice] sexy, sensual way, but in the way that it just feels luxurious.

Is there any part of your dancing that no one talks about?
How I do all this work. I am on all the time. There are days when I do three techs in a day, and techs are performances because there are cameras. And then I have to do it again that night. I don’t complain, but it is very hard. I love to dance. I like everything that I do, so I don’t want them to go, “I’m not going to let her learn that.” No. I want to do it—I work so hard. I dance different than other people—not better, not worse, but I dance different. I’m different. I have to say that to myself because sometimes I don’t believe it.

You are. And your musicality is different—that’s what I love.
You know how dancers count? I hate counting. You wanna know the step? I’ll give you the step, and I’ll tell you when it happens in the music. I’ll sing it, but I never count. You have to feel the music and be the music. You want to be able to feel what that dancer is feeling and you can tell when someone counts. It’s dead. It’s not melodious, it’s not a song; it’s like you’re singing off the beat. Musicality can be on the rhythm or you may be holding back so it’s a little late, but then you catch it. It’s phrasing.

And you change the phrasing every time you go out, even when it’s taped music, which is kind of a miracle.
I do. But each day you feel different. Some days, I feel so on and there are other days when I just feel a little bit softer, a little calmer, and maybe I’d rather ride it. You have to be honest and realistic as a dancer. I try to be as close to myself as I can be. It’s very hard—not to force it, but to just be.

What it is like before you go on?
Depends. If the ballet has to be sparky–sparky [snaps fingers], I have to laugh. I’m a jokester. I’ll pick myself up and act silly. But when it’s something a little bit more serious, I really tune out. I have to. It’s a level that I have to uphold for myself. I have to be better than I was last year. I have to get myself in there. I try to listen to music that will keep my spirit and my breathing pattern very focused and I’m very serious. Not mean-serious, but I tune out and everybody kind of knows that I’m focusing. I conserve my energy throughout the day a lot. At City Center, I’m on energy saver and that’s what gets me through.

How do you measure your success?
Like this. [Shrinking, she presses her thumb and forefinger together.]

A crumb?
I don’t think I’m successful. I don’t think of my dancing or dance like that. What matters to me is what I bring to the stage and that my hard work is recognized by the company. If I’m happy with what I do, that’s sufficient. What I put out on the stage: that’s enough. To be able to learn something and get a chance to do it. That’s it.

Eat like a dancer»
Linda Celeste Sims shares her favorite recipes that she makes during the City Center season.