Jamar Roberts

The Ailey dancer talks it up.

  • Photograph: Andrew Eccles


  • Photograph: Andrew Eccles


Photograph: Andrew Eccles


When did you start dancing?
When I was ten in Jacksonville, Florida. My family moved there for a short period of time after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Everything in Miami was demolished, and that's when I started. There was a young lady that lived next door, and she needed guys to basically lift girls at an after-school dance program. I said, "Sure," because I lived right down the street. I just kept going. It was fun, and I really had nothing else to do after school. After we moved back to Miami—I'm an artist and I draw a lot—I think I was starting the sixth grade; I went to a magnet middle school and automatically, I just enrolled in art. One day the dance program had an assembly, and I was like, I've got to do that. It was so cheesy. They were dancing to that song "A Whole New World," from Aladdin, and there was smoke on stage, and they were wearing bedazzled dresses. But it was effective. [Laughs]

What kind of dance was it?
It was a mix of everything: We did some ballet, jazz, a little bit of tap. I didn't do tap and I don't know why. We also did modern dance. I think I liked it all. I like to move in general, even now—look, I'm swiveling. It's not nerves. There wasn't one style in particular that caught my attention. That's just like it is at the Ailey company. We do so many different works, and I like them all. Most of the time. As long as I'm jumping, turning.

What was your next period of training?
I bounced around. My parents are really crazy and unstable [Laughs]. After that first middle school, I went onto another in Miami, and after that there was high school. They wanted to open a high school that was your traditional high school with the football team and all that, but they also wanted to incorporate the arts. One of the teachers from my middle school went to teach at this new high school, and I basically followed the teacher into this school. Turns out, it wasn't at all what I wanted it to be. I think I wanted more of a conservatory feeling, and it was too normal-high-school. I transferred to New World School of the Arts in downtown Miami, and that's where I got a lot of formal training in Limn and Graham techniques and ballet. At the same time, I was dancing at a private dance studio outside of school, so I would spend hours and hours learning routines to take to competitions.

What was your most memorable competition?
It was a competition called West Coast Dance Explosion. It was national. It was the most memorable because I was competing for the title of Mr. West Coast Dance Explosion. [Laughs] I just thought I was going to win, and I didn't. But I wasn't torn up about it or anything; I was only ever competing for fun. I never wanted an award or a medal. My teacher didn't emphasize it either. She was just there to show her work.

Why did you think you were going to win?
I guess because other people said I was going to be the winner. Maybe because I was the tallest or something. [Laughs] Right after I graduated I went to the Ailey School and did their fellowship program for probably two weeks before I got into Ailey II. I didn't even know there was an Ailey II before I went. My Graham teacher at high school—Peter London—is really good friends with Sylvia Waters, who runs the second company. He basically said, "I have a student here that you should take a look at." I think she saw me during classes for those two weeks.

Had you seen the Ailey company?
I had seen them once before I got to the building. I was blown away, specifically by the "Sinner Man" section of Revelations. It was funny because Matthew Rushing was doing the third variation, which is something that he wouldn't do onstage in a regular season now. I was blown away by that performance. It seemed really far-fetched and unattainable, but at the same time it seemed really familiar to me. I think they danced in a way or with an energy that seemed very close to my own. But at the time, I didn't see myself dancing there at all. I mean, sure, I said, "I want to dance there" after I left the performance, but you know—sometimes you just say things.

Did you have a dream to move to New York?
No. I didn't want to move to New York. Actually, I didn't even want to be a dancer until I graduated. I wanted to be a meteorologist at one point. At another, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I always say I didn't want to be a dancer until three years ago. [Laughs] I think it takes a lot to figure that out. For some, maybe, it's love at first sight. But I'm a late bloomer for a lot of things. What I think it took was just some growing up and realizing what you're actually getting into and why you're doing it. At a point, the idea of dancing just for fun kind of plays out a little bit after you do it constantly. You have to find another reason, or one comes up.

What's the reason?
My reason is it's just a part of who I am [Laughs]. I've just accepted the fact. Not that I won't do anything else as well as dance, but I'll always dance, and I dance because I feel that it's a gift. You know when, say, a friend gives you a ring or some earrings, and they ask, "Do you ever wear that? I've never seen you wear that." I feel a responsibility, in a way, to do it, no matter how much I hate it. It's a beautiful gift. Not everyone can dance.

How long were you in Ailey II?
Just a year.

And then you were in Ailey—but you were also in Complexions, right? What happened?
I left the Ailey company after two years because I had to go and figure out this fashion-design thing. [Laughs] While I was in the company, I was doing sketches, and I would sometimes build a costume here and there, but I couldn't do that—I'm kind of black-and-white, all-or-nothing sometimes, and I couldn't do it halfway. I had to go and figure it out and see if it was real. Was this a hobby or just a passion of mine? It just turned out to be a hobby. [Laughs]

Did you go to design school?
I went to FIT just for a semester. It took just that long for me to figure out I didn't want to. It's just a little too tedious for me. Kind of boring. Stationary. And yes, I only did a semester, but there are a lot of rules involved. I've made things in the past, and I just like to rig it up, and if it stays and doesn't fall apart, then I'm fine. But the draping and all that other stuff...[Moans] And at the same time I was dancing in Complexions, because I needed to make money when I was in school, so I started doing them both. I would leave rehearsal and go to class and basically fall asleep, so dance kind of took over, anyway.

Was that a hard transition going from Ailey II to the main company?
I think during Ailey II, I called a friend of mine every single day basically saying, "I want to leave." [Laughs] Ailey II is not easy. I actually think it's more difficult than the first company in a lot of ways. You don't get all the perks, so it makes it a little bit more trying. The hotels aren't five-star either, and sometimes you're dancing on a makeshift stage. Things like that.

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