When Shuaib Dee Elhassan began his dance training at 12 years old at The Ailey School in New York City, he never imagined himself as a contemporary ballet dancer. "Ailey was all I knew—Ailey was the dream," he says. But as he got older and was introduced to a range of classical and contemporary companies, something changed. "I began to appreciate something totally different," he says. And now as a member of San Francisco–based Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a promising career in contemporary ballet is shaping up.
In 2012 Elhassan attended a summer intensive with Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Co-founders Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, themselves once members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, offered him his first professional job. After his contract was up in 2013, Elhassan felt a bit lost and spent a year exploring other possibilities—including an audition for "So You Think You Can Dance."
"It turned out that wasn't really my place in the world," he says. When LINES posted an upcoming audition in NYC, he decided to attend, on a whim. King immediately offered him a spot with the company, where he's been now for seven years.
This May, the company is touring King's Figures of Speech. Here, Elhassan talks about the work, as well as how he manages the challenges of life on tour.
On dancing Figures of Speech "This piece is about lost languages. It makes me kind of nervous to share it with people because it is so out of this world. It feels kind of like 'What the hell is going on?' It's eerie. When I watch my colleagues dance it, I'm constantly noticing new things. It's a great one to share on tour—with each new audience, you're excited to see how they will respond."
On maintaining physical health while touring "While we are on the bus, I try to avoid stiffness by getting up and walking around, lying down in between rows and rolling out my muscles. Sometimes we will travel for 13 hours and then have an eight-hour break before we need to be show-ready. I always make sure to sleep during that time. Even if we're given a two-hour break, I try to find time to nap. I've always had a fast metabolism, but as I've gotten older, I've had to be careful about what I eat while traveling. Fast food is often what's easiest, but I try to find a balance between a little bit of that and more of the healthy stuff, so that I have enough energy to work."
On combating homesickness "I always unpack my stuff when I get to the hotel. I even set my shoes by the door like I do at home. It makes me feel like I'm not living out of a suitcase—I'm living out of a hotel room—and it changes the game. I've come to find that home is where the heart is, and your heart is with you always."
Training: The Ailey School
Professional: Complexions Contemporary Ballet (2012–13); Alonzo King LINES Ballet (2014–present)