“It was daunting,” says her mother, Veronica, who was waiting helplessly below. “But Nardia navigated those steps and maintained her composure, and she loved the fact that the crowd was just mesmerized. I knew then that she’d be in the performing arts. My God, she was really into it.”
It’s tempting to say that Nardia Boodoo has sailed through her ballet career as smoothly as she descended those perilous stairs. At 26, the Baltimore native is a member of the Washington Ballet, which she joined in 2013 as a trainee. She lives in Bethesda with her dog, cat and boyfriend, South African company member Andile Ndlovu, 31. But there’s no such thing as a smooth-sailing life in ballet, not even for Boodoo, who in many ways was born to be a ballerina.
As a young woman of color, she faced ballet teachers and professionals who tried to push her into modern dance or the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the ballet company founded by Arthur Mitchell in 1969 for African American dancers to prove that ballet is boundless and so are dancers of color.
Boodoo pushed back, even against the legendary Mitchell, with whom she was close. “He was like a grandfather to me,” she says, having trained with him in summer programs over the years. Boodoo says she was the last dancer to work with him in the studio, meeting with him a month before he died last year.
Much as she loved Mitchell, Boodoo didn’t want to be pigeonholed. She wanted to make it in a mainstream company, to be hired solely because of her excellence.
“I’m lucky my timing is good,” she says. “It’s only been recently that diversity and inclusion, these ideas, have come into ballet. I guess I’m at the start of the newest generation of dancers of color.”
Now, Boodoo is determined to have it all: a ballet career, starring roles and a college degree to prepare for eventual retirement. What she’s discovered is that no matter how generously gifted you are, reality can trip you up.
For one thing, at this particular point in time, ballet hurts. In December, just about every ballerina on the planet is hunting down ice buckets and coffee, hoping to stay healthy through the marathon of blistered feet, sore calves and hairpin headaches known as “The Nutcracker.”
Boodoo is no exception. At just about any given Washington Ballet “Nutcracker” performance, through Dec. 29 at the Warner Theatre, you can spot her as one of the parents in the party scene, in a lavishly draped and bustled gown that weighs about 40 pounds. She’s also often cast in the snow scene, the Waltz of the Cherry Blossoms or as one of the cardinals, in a red-feathered tutu.
But there’s also a highlight this season: Boodoo has been preparing for her first soloist role, in the seductive Anacostia Indian pas de deux, as it’s called in this historic-Washington version of the classic ballet. (It’s known in other productions as the Arabian dance.) Boodoo’s partner is Ndlovu, and the choreography’s off-axis balances and lifts are a challenge for them both. Plus, dancing with your real-life partner isn’t always a picnic.
“It’s like doing planks the entire time,” she says. “How to make my body be still in the position I need it in. It’s all control.”
For Ndlovu, the key to rehearsing with your girlfriend is mental. “You have to really think through what you’re trying to convey,” he says with a laugh, “because whatever you say at that time follows you home.”
But much of ballet has come easily to Boodoo. She was blessed with classic proportions and such natural attributes as narrow, flexible feet and a physique that is lithe, long-limbed and supple. Her wide-set, almond-shaped eyes and broad cheekbones are a plus in a profession focused on beauty. One might guess that from her self-possession at age 5 to whirling around the stage in her 20s wearing feathers and a brilliant smile, she’s followed the standard ballerina route. Right?
“It’s just really crazy how this all came about,” Boodoo says on a recent night off, over a double order of crab cakes and fries at Clyde’s in Chevy Chase. She’s casually chic, wearing a lace-trimmed, high-necked white blouse over leggings and boots. A small clip pins down a few of her glossy black curls, but most of them tumble around her face.
As successful as she was as a child beauty queen, she hated those pageants.
“That was just not my thing. I did not want to be there,” Boodoo says, twisting the rings on her slender fingers. She took some dance classes for the talent portion of the contests, but not long after her stunning staircase moment, she gave it all up. She didn’t think about dancing again until she was 14 and facing ninth grade. Her parents favored an all-girls Catholic school, but Boodoo objected.
“Then my mom was like, ‘Remember dancing?’ ”
Next thing she knew, Boodoo was auditioning for the Baltimore School for the Arts in a leotard and shorts, because she didn’t have tights.
She didn’t know what a pirouette was.
She’d never heard of Misty Copeland.
In a few years, though, Boodoo, whose mother is African American and whose father is Trinidadian, would see her dance dreams embodied in Copeland, the first African American principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre.
“It’s so embarrassing to talk about it, but it’s the truth,” Boodoo says, covering her eyes in mock shame. “I didn’t even know how to do a split. Compared with other girls who were already on pointe, I didn’t own pointe shoes until that year.”
And yet, with her well-shaped feet and elegant bearing, the girl who was six or seven years behind her peers in terms of training, and hadn’t a clue about the fundamentals, passed the audition. She progressed to pointe technique by the end of the year. Such rapid development in an art of fine detail and control is extremely unusual, and it points up Boodoo’s work ethic as well as her innate ability.
Once she discovered ballet, Boodoo threw herself into it, rising every morning at 6 to stretch for an hour before school. Basically, she says, she never stopped dancing.
“I wanted to do well,” she says, “and I was so far behind.”
Even now, to keep building strength and power, Boodoo augments her daily ballet class, rehearsals and performances with Pilates workouts, weights and cardiovascular and interval training at a gym.
“Nardia is gifted with this gorgeous long instrument and very long limbs, but controlling this, especially for a dancer who started her training late, is not easy,” says Julie Kent, the Washington Ballet’s artistic director. “That’s why her determination and commitment are impressive. It takes a lot not to get frustrated along the way.”
The work of a dancer is never finished. But look at Boodoo’s Instagram account (@narstarr), and you’ll see that ballet isn’t her only pursuit. She’s also a model, under contract with the Wilhelmina International agency, a connection that came about after brands started contacting Boodoo to post their products on her social media. She has appeared in ads for Tory Burch, Banana Republic, Estee Lauder, Nike and others, and she danced in an upcoming commercial for Chanel, overseen by the top commercial choreographer Ryan Heffington (who choreographed the music video for Sia’s “Chandelier”).
“That’s how I’m paying for school,” Boodoo says, because on top of all that, she’s working on her bachelor’s degree, through an online program of St. Mary’s College of California created specifically for professional dancers. She’s in her first semester, finishing up a biology course.
“So from 9:30 to 6, I’m a dancer, and from 7 to 12, I’m a student,” Boodoo says. “And then a couple times a month, I’m a model. So there’s no time for anything else.”
Well, except one thing. Boodoo reserves Sundays, outside of “Nutcracker” season, for cooking. Her Trinidadian father was a chef at a Pikesville country club, and he taught her about food and self-discipline.
“I think it has everything to do with where he’s from,” Boodoo says. “Trinidad was under the British regime, very disciplined and militant in that sense. . . . He calls it ‘Trini to de bone.’ You know how to be a disciplined individual. But you also go out, you party, and you have fun.”
Boodoo left the Washington Ballet for a season to be an apprentice at Pennsylvania Ballet and returned in 2017, eventually earning a promotion to full company member. Her goal, she says, is to be a leading ballerina, ideally in “Giselle,” the Romantic-era ballet about betrayal, death and forgiveness.
“Oh, my God, I love it. She just goes crazy! And she dies, and she haunts the guy. It’s just epic.”
At the same time, Boodoo is preoccupied with the brevity of a dancer’s career. “Who am I without ballet is a terrifying concept,” she says and falls silent, studying the crab cakes that she has barely touched. She probes a french fry.
“It’s hard for me, really hard for me, to think of what I would do outside of ballet,” she says at last. “And that’s why I’m in school now, to figure out what it is that I like. What if I don’t like anything else? I’d always want to be a ballet teacher. But is that fulfilling? Is that enough? I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, she feels deeply that Arthur Mitchell’s work is not finished. It has taken a long time for the ballet industry to face its lack of diversity and do something about it. Copeland broke a major barrier, and Boodoo is grateful that she came afterward.
But there’s an old-school element that still sees her as an outlier, a dancer who just might not ever fit in.
“I was once told, ‘You’re in the corps and you stand out so much. So you have to work harder than everyone else.’ And my response is, ‘Why don’t you get more girls that look like me, and I won’t stand out as much?’ And I knew that wasn’t the place for me, because of that mentality.
“Being a dancer of color is like a dichotomy situation,” she continues. “It’s not unnatural for me to be graceful in this, but there’s also a very real level to it that never leaves me. I represent something bigger than myself. And that’s from Mr. Mitchell.
“But I’m optimistic that my goal will be realized. I don’t know if it’s going to be here or in Europe. But it’s going to happen, and I’m going to make it happen.”
The Washington Ballet performs “The Nutcracker,” choreographed by Septime Webre, through Dec. 29 at Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. washingtonballet.org.