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Tribute: Thea Barnes – Goddess of Dance

This week dance and theatre world celebrated the life and career of Thea Nerissa Barnes with a tribute show of performance and readings from her published essays on dance research; Introducing a legacy fund created to continues Thea’s support of dancers, choreographers and researchers. Needless to say Thea has been a pillar of inspiration and nurturing black performers both in the U.S and Britain. Here is our tribute to Ms Barnes by one her students and dancer at the Lion King Crystal Nicholls:

Thea Nerissa Barnes was a mentor, choreographer, teacher, and dance artist. A passionate and dedicated perfectionist, her drive and dedication will forever be evident through her legacy and far-reaching impact.

In 1972, she joined internationally renowned company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She later moved on to Martha Graham Dance Company in 1979, where she stayed for over a decade. Her dancing has been described as expressive, beautiful and effortless, and resulted in her promotion to principal dancer in 1982. Being a black principal female in a major American dance company at the time was an amazing feat, and a testament to her talent. She was an inspiration to other black females, who may have otherwise thought it impossible to succeed in an often-biased industry.

In 2001, Thea became resident dance supervisor of Disney’s The Lion King, a position she held for 17 years. She brought all of her experience with her and made the production the best-selling musical it is today.

I have had the privilege of working with Ms. Barnes and these are the experiences that stand out for me:

Her passion was unrivaled

Thea was passionate about dance and education, pouring her knowledge into her dancers. Every class she taught was like a military drill, and she would have us repeat each exercise until we mastered what she was trying to achieve. She always explained why we were doing it, and how it would translate to the choreography of the show.

Being a dance researcher, she loved to share her knowledge with her students. She taught us how to protect our bodies from injuries, what to eat for more energy, and would recommend dance classes or training methods to improve our technique.

She was also passionate about health and fitness. If you ever started a conversation about any of these topics, she could keep you talking for hours, and would even bring you pages of information later for your continued learning.

She taught me the importance of intention

Thea was meticulous, to say the least. Every step in the show was accounted for, every movement had a reason, every shape of the body was orchestrated by Thea to ensure the story was told the way it was meant to be told. She taught us to trust in the work by remembering the intention of our movement.

Why are you contracting your body this way? What was the choreographer’s intention? How will you honour that intention when you perform? These were all questions Thea asked of us to ensure we were telling the story.

I remember one rehearsal in particular, Thea said to the dancers in frustration, “it’s not about you!” She meant that what we were doing in the scene was distracting from the director’s intention. She was reminding us to contribute to the story by keeping the focus where it was meant to be kept. There is no room for individualism and ego in theatre, and years of experience taught her this. We were there as a group to create something beautiful together, not to stand out.

She taught me how to take care of my body

I remember returning to work after a back injury that took me off the show for six weeks. As you can imagine, returning to a demanding schedule is particularly daunting after having been away for such a long time. Her words of advice to me were:

“You can’t give the same energy to the show every day. It’s impossible. You need to learn how to pull back, when to breathe, and how to save yourself so you have enough stamina to get you through the week”.

She would often tell us stories about challenging situations she dealt with in performances, such as dancing on a raked stage, which she described hilariously as “a serious rake”. She mentioned these things not to brag, but to teach us how to save our bodies when presented with similar circumstances.

She did not tolerate mediocrity

Thea approached me one day and asked why I was cheating a turn in one of our most challenging dance numbers by putting my foot down early. I said it was because I felt like I was falling out of it. Her response? “Stop doing that. Trust yourself and stop doing that”. Simple as that. But for her it really was that simple. She had learned to trust her training, which resulted in a freedom on stage. She expected excellence from us and nothing less. She watched every show and noted every number. You could not pull one over on her, no matter how clever you thought you were.

She told us once that we have a responsibility to ourselves and to the audience to be accountable for what we present on stage. She said that when she was a performer, no matter how tired she felt the day of a performance, she would remember that she was giving the audience a gift, and this gift was to be cherished and highly valued. She encouraged us not to take opportunities for granted, but to develop a sense of integrity and satisfaction in what we had to offer.

Thea was the anchor of our company. She made us better through her unwavering dedication. Whenever I perform, I remember what she taught me: intention, passion, integrity and accountability, and I hope I am making her proud.

Full details about the fund  and donations can be found on

Words by Crystal Nicholls

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