Kiyon Gaines doesn’t fit the mold of a ballet dancer. He’s compact and muscular, not long and lean like the stereotypical danseur, the French term for a male dancer. He’s also African American in an art form that is overwhelmingly white.
Much like the American Ballet Theatre’s first-ever African American principal dancer Misty Copeland who was recruited to participate in ballet classes through a Boys and Girls Club program, ballet found Gaines, not the other way around. While studying tap and jazz during his youth near Baltimore, a teacher said he needed more softness and finesse and recommended ballet to help with that.
Looking back, Gaines says, “It wasn’t something I was supposed to do.” But, with tenacity and what became a love for ballet and performing, he did it anyway, in spite of criticism that he didn’t have the right body.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s founding artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell hired Gaines for their company in 2001, and he was later promoted to soloist. He danced many roles in PNB’s former Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker over the course of his 14 years with the company. His dance career concluded in June, following three surgeries in four years, just before the rollout of a dramatically new Nutcracker. It opens Friday.