Alvin Ailey principal dancer Belen Pereyra was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Lawrence. She began her formal dance training at Boston Arts Academy, where she graduated as valedictorian, and she was a member of the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center. She then moved to New York, where she was mentored by Earl Mosley and danced with Camille A. Brown & Dancers for three years. In 2011, she joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which performs at the Boch Wang Theatre on April 27-30.
Jonathan Soroff: Is Boston Arts Academy the most underappreciated resource in Boston?
Belen Pereyra: They do phenomenal work. There are countless people who have graduated from there and created lives for themselves in the arts. I hope people continue to invest in it. It definitely changed my life, and I don’t think people understand the power of the teachers and how committed they are to changing the lives of their students.
Did you always want to dance? I first started simply because my mother loved to sing and to dance. My introduction was through a Peruvian dance group. I never showed her that I was interested in the arts, except for maybe dancing merengue at home or something. Eventually, I fell in love with it. But I originally wanted to be a singer.
So if you weren’t a dancer, would you be a singer? I don’t think I’m the best singer, but my mom definitely made me feel like I was the next superstar. I think I would still be some kind of artist. When I have had other jobs, none of them fulfilled me. I need to be in the arts.
Did you ever have any desire to do ballet? Yeah, at B.A.A. that was my prime goal, but I never thought I could be a ballerina. I didn’t think I had the body type for it, or what they label the body type for it, but I definitely had an affinity for it over modern dance. The technique of ballet was always my favorite. I always wore pointe shoes in class.
What converted you to modern dance? I liked the earthiness of it, the versatility. I liked the way it taps into a lot more spaces.
Favorite song to dance to? It changes all the time. I guess if I had to tap way back, I’d choose something by Juan Luis Guerra. He’s a Dominican singer. Of course, I love most music, because I’m a dancer, but I particularly love his music, because he was able to show me what my country looked like when I wasn’t able to go and see it.
Do you ever burst out in dance spontaneously in your everyday life? All the time. In the train station, anywhere. And I don’t care if anyone’s watching.
Do you think anybody can dance? Yes. The universe is movement. Every particle is moving. And there’s no right or wrong way to dance. If you’re expressing something your soul is guiding you to, that’s it. Now, if you want to be on a stage, then yes, we need to hone your technique. You have to take lessons. But dance itself is as fundamental as a plant moving in the water.
Song you find yourself singing in the shower? Right now, I’m obsessed with the Sia song “The Greatest.” I saw the video, and I was obsessed with the choreography and how committed the dancers were. I also love the message. It’s the song of the year for me. I feel like this is my butterfly year. I’m emerging from a cocoon, and my wings have sprouted. I had a lot of fear and doubt in the past. That’s gone now.
Where did that come from? Well, when I came to Ailey, I literally just came from Best Buy. The other company members were coming from Ailey 2 or school, and they were used to this rigorous schedule. I was maybe taking a class or two a day, rehearsing on weekends and working at Best Buy to make ends meet. I was so scared. And now I’m realizing I have so much to offer and a unique voice.
Body part that hurts the most at the end of the day? When I first started at Ailey, everything. I remember feeling my psoas muscle in constant contraction. I’ve learned how to use my body more efficiently and effortlessly when I work. I take care of myself. I roll out. I do Feldenkrais.
Favorite venue to perform in? I’m biased. I love Boston. I grew up going to shows at the Wang, and I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen, the most magical theater ever. Now that I’ve been everywhere and seen so many beautiful theaters, I still think nobody can touch it.
What’s your best feature? As a dancer, I don’t know how to not dance from the gut. When people watch me dance, they tell me that they connect with me. They say, “My eyes go to you,” and I think that’s because I can’t help but to dance from the depths of me. People can relate to that.
Person you’d most like to perform for? My dad. He’s in the Dominican Republic and unable to come back. He’s never seen me dance except in video. That would be pretty magical.
Ever had a major faux pas on stage? Plenty. One of the funniest was when I was doing “Fix Me Jesus.” At the end, there’s this gorgeous arabesque, and I’m on top of a male dancer’s leg. It’s a very awkward pose for the girl, and my skirt got stuck under my foot. I couldn’t get it out. I ended up upside down, in a straddle, behind him, with all the wrong things showing.
Best part of touring? The growth, spiritually, emotionally and mentally. I know that it’s going to be very difficult, but I look forward to seeing how I come out at the other end.
Worst part of touring? The lack of consistency. Coming home at the end of the day, knowing where things are—to have things you can rely on is really great, and on tour, you have to relearn everything on each leg of a tour: where to eat, how long it will take, the weather, everything. We have to lug our luggage around, then use our bodies on stage. It’s hard.
Favorite dance festival you’ve appeared in? I think with Camille A. Brown & Dancers, we went to Fire Island for an AIDS fundraiser, and that was pretty powerful. It was really gorgeous, with the water and the sun setting.
How do you think you’d do on Dancing with the Stars? I used to watch it. And I auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance, and I was cut immediately. I think it would be fun. I think I’m a very versatile dancer. I can adapt, as long as I’m given the space, which is why I’ve excelled at Ailey. But I think I’d love it. It would be a lot of fun.
Favorite city to tour in? I get to go to Berkeley, California, and I love the laid-back energy. I could live in San Francisco.
Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly? I love Gene Kelly.
Worst injury you ever had? I sprained my ankle the summer after I graduated Boston Arts Academy at a summer program in Florida. It was the worst thing that could have happened. I was out for eight months. My body changed. I was depressed. I felt like I lost technique. My confidence changed. There was a spiral down. That was the formation of that cocoon. Recovering both physically and psychologically took years.
Do you have any superstitions before you perform? I try to live my life without superstitions. My mother, when I was younger, was very superstitious, and I understood that it wasn’t very healthy. Life is not predictable. You can’t have a set way of doing things. But when I prepare, there is a very ceremonial feel to it. I light a candle. I say prayers. I listen to Alan Watts speaking. But if I can’t do those things, I try to say, “It just wasn’t supposed to happen,” and I try to clear my mind.
How old do you think you’ll be when you stop dancing? Well, I’m about to get married in June, and I’ve discussed this with my fiancé. It’s tough to have a relationship in this business, so he jokes that by 35, he’ll adopt children on his own. But it does give me a timeline, because I do want to be a mother, more than anything. It’s very important to me to have a family and not just get lost in the work. So I think at around age 35 I’ll probably retire from this level of intensity and transition to a slower-paced job. But I’ll always dance. It’s so much a part of me that I’d be depressed if I didn’t.
Photographed by Adam DeTour at the Dance Complex; Hair: Michelle Lee / Salon Eva Michelle Makeup: Tessa Liska / G2O Spa + Salon