From Academy to Ailey: Fana Tesfagiorgis’ journey

  • Photo courtesey New York City Dance Project.

  • Fana Tesfagiorgis (center) during the 2004-05 Interlochen Center for the Arts Dance Company production of The Nutcracker.

Fana Tesfagiorgis is living her 4-year-old self’s dream.

Tesfagiorgis began dancing at that age—and redecorated her bedroom shortly thereafter. “My room was all ballerinaed out,” she said during her recent return to campus. Tesfagiorgis, now a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, visited her alma mater in January to share the same techniques that had inspired her with a new generation of Interlochen Arts Academy dancers.

It took very little time for Tesfagiorgis’ parents to realize how serious their daughter was about dancing. As she neared high school, her mother encouraged her to audition for several arts schools around the nation. “Interlochen really drew me in, even though I was just visiting to audition,” Tesfagiorgis said. “It really warmed my heart in a lot of ways.”

Tesfagiorgis enrolled at Interlochen Arts Academy as a freshman in 2002 and spent all four years of high school at the Academy. Shortly after she arrived, Earl Mosley visited campus to teach a master class in the Horton Technique—the same technique that Tesfagiorgis taught in her January sessions.

“The Horton Technique opened my eyes to a new world of modern dance, which was really technical and similar to ballet, but with more options,” she said. “I had a chance to learn (Mosley’s) piece both in my freshman year as an understudy and in my junior year when he visited again.”

Mosley’s piece was not the only one Tesfagiorgis learned at Interlochen. Some of her fondest memories are of performing The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Coppelia on the Corson stage.

“It was always exciting to do a full ballet with the orchestra, especially because some of my friends would be in the pit playing,” she said.

Tesfagiorgis has fond memories off the stage, too. “I really enjoyed dorm life,” she said. “I think it just helped me get a sense of community in a new way.”

During Mosley’s second visit to Interlochen, Tesfagiorgis was encouraged to enroll in one of Alvin Ailey’s summer dance intensives. Tesfagiorgis took Mosley’s advice, and spent the summer between her junior and senior years studying dance in New York. “I loved the people, the style and living in New York City,” she said. “It’s such a different pace than the Midwest.”

A year later, Tesfagiorgis was accepted into the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, graduating with a major in dance and a minor in journalism.

“I got a minor because my parents wanted me to have a backup plan, and I also love to write,” she said. Although she dances full-time, she still finds time to write, especially about dance: During a tour with Ailey II, Tesfagiorgis was asked to keep a blog and write a post about each destination on the tour.

“I definitely want to go back to school at some point and get a master’s, maybe in journalism,” she said. “I see the social media world exploding with opportunities; right now, I’m kind of sitting back, watching and developing my voice. Once those dust clouds settle, I’m interested in seeing what my place could be in dance journalism.”

After her college graduation, Tesfagiorgis was offered one of only 12 positions in Ailey II, the junior company of Alvin Ailey. As a member of Ailey II, Tesfagiorgis had the opportunity to tour nationally and internationally, which she called a “great transition between school and the professional world.” She also had an opportunity to participate in several teaching outreaches.

After Ailey II, Tesfagiorgis spent a year working as a freelance dancer before signing on with Ailey in 2013. Joining Ailey is a dream come true for Tesfagiorgis, who had admired the company since her youth. “One of the things I love about the Ailey Company is that it is extremely culturally diverse,” she said. “When I got to the Ailey School, it was refreshing to feel like my race or ethnicity had no effect on my casting. Everyone was seen equally.”

Tesfagiorgis acknowledges that dance is not always an especially diverse field, but emphasizes the important role that diversity plays in both artistic and academic settings. “You do notice when you’re the only one in the room, and it can have an effect on how much confidence you have in voicing your own perspective,” she said. “Diversity is something that is needed everywhere—you definitely need to feel supported in who you are.”

Tesfagiorgis hopes to inspire the same kind of confidence in the students that Mosley’s visit inspired in her: the confidence to voice unique perspectives. “Always share your ideas,” she advised. “If there’s something in your heart to create, create it. There’s a reason that that was placed in your heart, and if you don’t share it, the world will never see it.”