Credit: Katie Drais
Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Sixteen-year-old Alillia Bowden is a sophomore at Seattle Academy (or SAAS, as it is more familiarly known); she is also a third-year student in the Academy program at the School of Spectrum Dance Theater in Madrona. Under the eclectic and inspiring choreographic vision of Spectrum’s executive artistic director, Donald Byrd, Bowden has trained to develop her dance both as an art form and as a powerful vehicle for social expression and change. Bowden’s dedication to dance and to her fellow Spectrum dancers, fellow students and teachers has resulted in her nomination as one of 100 young Washington state change-makers being recognized in conjunction with the Gates Foundation Discovery Center’s current “We the Future” exhibit, which celebrates youth leadership and action across a range of social justice issues.
For Bowden, the answer to the question of how to make a difference begins and ends with the same powerful impulse and principle: kindness.
Share a bit about your background in dance and how you came to join Spectrum.
According to my parents, I have been dancing since even before I could walk. When my mom was pregnant with me, they would call me “Popcorn,” because I moved around so much. When I was 3, I started taking ballet at Cornish [College of the Arts], and then, when I was around 6, I moved over to Spectrum, per my mom’s request. I decided to try out jazz and then from there, around every year, I would add a new style of dance. I added ballet back in, and I’ve tried tap, lyrical and contemporary, and now I’m up for doing a whole bunch of different things. I’m at Spectrum around 20 hours a week now.
Do you have aspirations to become a professional dancer?
I’m really not sure yet if that’s my main goal, but I really enjoy having something to work hard at, something that can be so goal-oriented and so personal, where I can see the progress in myself. I’m not necessarily sure what I want to do with my future, but I do know that I want dance to be a part of it, because I love doing it so much and it’s given me such a great community.
Donald Byrd is renowned for his disruptive and groundbreaking theatrical dance performances. What is it like to work with him as a young dancer in training?
It’s amazing! When I was younger, around 12 or so, he was very intimidating. But we get to take this really cool class called Engaging around once a week, where we meet with Donald and we talk to him about dance, which often turns into talking to him about life, since for a lot of us, dance is a very big part of our life. I like how hard he pushes us, because even though we are young, he has really high expectations for us. He pushes me and everyone else in the Academy to be even better.
How has dance and performance informed your worldview?
Part of what makes Spectrum and Donald Byrd’s work so important and so cool is that they really bridge that gap [between art and social justice issues]. I feel as though a lot of the time, dance sort of gets overlooked as a way to make social change. A lot of the time, it’s just about aesthetics and how things look, but I really love that Spectrum makes it about the impact that movement can have on people.
For me personally, I think that the way dance impacts me most is that it’s taught me a lot about myself as a person and how to use teamwork to grow and learn both from myself and from others.
What workshops are you participating in now?
We’re actually rehearsing a workshop production of “The Harlem Nutcracker,” which we’re bringing back for the first time in quite a few years, I believe. I’m really excited, because for the winter show, the Academy gets to perform with the professional company. The Academy is doing the choir portion of it, and then we’re also doing a piece with the rest of the school of Spectrum with the kids who take all the classes.
[“The Harlem Nutcracker,” Dec. 12–15; tickets available here.]
Are you doing any performances at SAAS?
I’m also involved in the dance program at school. We have four levels in dance at school, and I’m in the second-highest level and I’m actually acting as dance captain this year, which is really exciting. At the end of every trimester, all of the performing arts classes at school perform at what we call End of Tri, which is just a big, cumulative show for all of those performing arts classes. So, we’ll be performing a jazz piece at End of Tri, which I’m really excited about. And then we also have a few more performances coming up in the spring at school for dance.
Do you have a teaching role with the younger dancers at Spectrum?
The pre-jazz teacher, Ms. Jacqueline, was kind enough to give me the opportunity to be her substitute for about the last month and a half of last year. I’ve also been able to be a teacher’s assistant for Ms. Heather, who was my childhood ballet teacher, and so I help her on Mondays with the pre-ballet students, and that’s been really, really fun. They’re kindergartners and first graders — they’re so cute! I love hanging out with them.
Do you have a favorite style of dance?
That’s really, really tough. I love everything, but I think, right now at least, my favorite style would actually have to be Donald Byrd Contemporary. I like how it’s very structured, like ballet is — it reminds me of math a little bit. It’s very specific and it can be very difficult, but when you get it, it feels so amazing, and you really feel like you worked really hard to get to that place of understanding, which I really enjoy.
Do you have any words of advice for young people who are maybe trying to figure out how they can make a difference in their community?
I think my advice is to use the skills that you do have to be kind and to just help other people, even if it’s in a small way. Sometimes I feel like what I’m doing isn’t that big or that monumental. But when I see how much I can help other people — like assisting my teacher or being reliable — it makes me feel really good.
Kindness is often considered just being nice to people. But I think it’s so much more than that. Being kind to everyone and everything — even inanimate objects, the environment and nature — is really important. I think that’s the most important thing that I’ve learned that has helped me become a leader: to just make sure that no one’s getting left behind.
Whom or what do you credit for inspiring you in your life?
I think that there’s sort of three main people in my life. The first two have to be my parents, because my parents have always been so supportive of me and there to remind me that as long as I’m doing my best, that’s enough.
And then there is one of my dance teachers: Ms. Heather has had a really big impact on my life. She’s been my teacher for seven or eight years now. She’s such a hardworking person and has really inspired me to do everything that I want to do. When we were little, she used to tell us about how she had a few main things that she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to be a ballerina, a teacher, a mom and a Muppet. She’s achieved ballerina, teacher and mom, and she says that once she retires from being a dance teacher, she’ll go to children’s hospitals dressed up as a Muppet. I think that having multiple dreams and achieving all of them all together is really inspiring, and she’s been able to do it so well.
Any parting words?
I have a favorite saying, which is about how hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. I like to think that no matter who you are and what you’re doing, if you work hard at it, you can achieve whatever it is that you want.