‘Being a Dancer Is Fun and All, But What’s Your Real Job?’

Reflecting on a career trajectory from professional dance to politics and diplomacy.

Stacie Williams enjoying a moment of stillness. Photo: Rachel Neville Photography.

I live in Washington, DC. As such, I have enjoyed a front-row seat to the political debauchery of the Trump administration’s 19-month reign. I, like many others I know, nervously scroll for the latest abominable news every morning, while acknowledging that many of the truly abhorrent policies, like those that slowly chip away at our democracy and harm the already-disenfranchised, may not even be on my radar.

Yet the silver lining has been thickening: a 31-year-old Democrat, Danny O’Conner, came within one percentage point of Republican Troy Balderson in a special election for Ohio’s 12th Congressional district, a 30-year GOP stronghold, and a rematch is on for November. The latest polls indicate that in the Georgia gubernatorial race, progressive Stacey Abrams is neck-and-neck with her Republican challenger — unheard of in this longtime red state, and made even more sweet by the fact that Abrams could be the first woman of color elected to a governorship in the nation. In fact, a record number of women and candidates of color and LGBTQ candidates are running for the House and Senate.

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contemporary dance
Stacie Williams in contemporary West African piece in Memphis, TN. Photo: Courtesy of Ballet Memphis.

I, Stacie Williams, am a Black woman, lifelong dancer, ballet instructor, political junkie and foreign policy practitioner. It is only now, four years after retiring from a 13-year professional ballet career, that I realize what an honor it was to make my living as a dancer for over a decade. I was acutely aware of how short the career of a ballerina is — while simultaneously I felt confined by it. I held shame in having interests aside from dancing, rehearsing and performing. As I straddled disparate worlds, I viewed having a strong interest in politics and in current affairs as a sign that I wasn’t adequately fulfilling my potential in being a dancer.

I never took the time to truly enjoy my dance career; I’d love to travel backward in time to tell my 17-year-old, Dance Theatre of Harlem-apprentice self to warmup longer before each morning ballet class and to enjoy every high, low and painful moment. During that time, if I wasn’t looking for the next better opportunity, I was daydreaming about what I considered more serious pursuits, such as college and graduate school, and some 9-to-5 job where I would carry a stylish, power briefcase.

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Stacie Williams with Former Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.

As it has come to pass, achieving goals both inside and outside of the dance world would surpass my expectations. I danced with ballet and modern companies large and small, toured several continents, and premiered many works. While dancing professionally I also finished college, began a teaching career, and earned a Master’s in foreign policy from Georgetown University. During graduate school, I interned on Capitol Hill; later, I worked for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the Department of State (DOS), which facilitates all cultural diplomacy programming for the US government. Later still, I had the honor to sere as an Obama administration appointee at the US Department of Commerce. Instead of that briefcase I dreamed of, I was armed with a very fashionable embossed leather binder.

These are accomplishments I am very proud of. At the same time I continue to be in awe of artists like Justin Lynch, CFR’s Sydney Skybetter and Aidan Feldman, who all manage to marry their seemingly incompatible interests: lawyer-dancer; technologist-choreographer; coder-dancer, respectfully.

There were times when my work as an artist would coincide with policy matters that I would study in school: As a dancer with Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater, I served as a cultural ambassador for DOS’s DanceMotion USA Program, where we utilized dance to engage with more than 2,000 students in South Asia. This endeavor included time in Sri Lanka, five years after the end of a 26-year conflict, where I was fortunate to work with Sinhalese and Tamil youth to create and present the first-ever Sinhala-Tamil-American modern dance piece.

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Cultural diplomacy
DanceMotion USA program members with local students in Nepal.

I aim to take advantage of every opportunity to exist in this sweet spot. I speak on cultural exchange and the role of the arts in traditional policy-making and diplomacy. I mentor young dancers seeking to forge a nontraditional path. Most recently, I produced an international conference that brought together artists, administrators and policymakers.

My struggle to find the balance continues. I am exploring how not to feel as if I exist separately in academia-policy and arts-creativity. Here in DC, I reside at the front line of national and international politics while being surrounded by under-reported, brilliantly engaged artists.

My first post at CFR is the beginning of what I hope will be a path towards reconciling this work. Politics. Arts. Foreign Policy. Dance. Identity. I aim to contribute toward bridging the gap between the arts and policy communities so that maybe the next ballet dancer who is interested in politics won’t be met with the question that so many artists dread: “I’m sure dancing is fun and all, but what is your real job?”