Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Kiyon Gaines says he didn’t find ballet -- ballet found him.
The Baltimore native didn’t start dancing until he was 10. He studied tap and jazz. Somebody told him that ballet lessons would help him with how he carried his arms. So his mother enrolled him in a local class.
He recalls the teacher pulled his mother aside. “Does Kiyon want to take more ballet classes?” the teacher asked. “He would be great at this.”
Gaines was 12 at the time. That's late for serious ballet training. But Gaines embraced the challenge, despite the fact that he was the only boy in the class.
“And I got hired at PNB when I was 19,” he laughs. “So in the span of seven years, there was a lot of improvement!”
Now, at the ripe old age of 33, Kiyon Gaines says it's time to retire.
The decision to step away from ballet was not an easy one. Like every professional dancer, Gaines knew he couldn’t continue to perform much past the age of 40. Plus, his mother had urged him to make contingency plans, in case the ballet dreams didn’t pan out. So, early on in his career, Gaines decided that age 35 would be the perfect time to step away from ballet and move onto something new.
“That’s me wanting to be in control of my own career. I wanted to be the one to make the decision when I wanted to stop dancing.”
But Gaines’ body didn’t cooperate with his plans.
“I’ve dealt with injuries,” he explains -- specifically, three surgeries in the past four years. “My entire soloist career has been plagued with surgeries.”
So, last fall, before PNB started its 2014-2015 artistic season, Gaines told PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal this year would be his last.
As hard as that was for Gaines, it also was a loss for PNB audiences. The exuberant, energetic dancer has been a standout during his 15 years in Seattle.
But he had to fight hard to make it to a professional company.
As a young, aspiring African American ballet dancer, Gaines had few role models. “Who do I look up to?” he remembers thinking. “Where do I get inspiration?”
Gaines attended New York’s School of American Ballet, the feeder for the New York City Ballet. At that time, he recalls, Albert Evans was the only African American male dancing with that company. But Gaines didn't see himself when he watched Evans, who had the long, lean stereotypical ballet dancer’s body.
Kiyon Gaines is compact and more muscular. Not only was he a black man in a predominantly white artform; he had the “wrong” body type for ballet.
But Gaines didn't give up.
In 2000, he came to Seattle as a PNB Professional Division student. Former Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell hired him the next year. He’s been with PNB ever since.
Now, as his own dance career winds down, Gaines believes the only way to challenge the traditional ballet aesthetic is to be a role model, to encourage “more people who look like me” to embrace ballet.
To that end, he’ll work with PNB’s Dance Chance program next season. Dance Chance visits local schools and offers scholarships to children who show an early aptitude for ballet, but who might not have considered it as something they might try.
Gaines hopes he can provide some inspiration to these kids, show them that a world of possibilities might be open to them.
That inspiration may transcend the dance world.
Kiyon Gaines will give his final PNB performance this Sunday, June 7. But it won’t be his last onstage appearance. On June 14, Gaines will don cap and gown and stride across a podium at Key Arena to receive a bachelor of arts degree in art administration from Seattle University.
“Mom will be here, my aunt will be here,” he says with a smile. “They’re going to be so proud!”