Choreographer and Artist Sidra Bell ’97 Reflects on Success with Middle School Students

Choreographer, dancer, professor and performance artist Sidra Bell ’97 is the first black female choreographer ever to be commissioned by the New York City Ballet. The Spence alumna took time from her ongoing projects to discuss in detail her creative process and reflect on her artistic success during a Middle School Assembly. 

As a Spence student, Bell not only studied performance as a member of the dance company, but explored visual art as well, which informs her choreography work now. While a student at Yale, she founded the Alliance for Dance at Yale. "The organization brought more dance to the Yale community, fostering workshops and performances among the student body,” she shared. “That’s where I got the idea to start a dance company.” She was awarded an entrepreneurial grant from Yale to help form the business, and Sidra Bell Dance New York is now in its 20th year. 

In addition to managing her own company, Bell is commissioned as an artist with university students and other dance companies all over the world: “I’m doing more mentoring of young choreographers and working with universities to think about the future of dance. During these times, specifically, how do we keep performance alive?”

Spence students engaged with Bell on a variety of topics, asking her input on everything from what inspires her to how she deals with failure.

Vidya S. asked if Bell ever had to deal with the pressures of having her body look a certain way. “Absolutely,” Bell said, sharing that when she was training in ballet she had “a different kind of body type than what was traditional.” But, she emphasized, body image has opened up: “There’s more movement toward acceptance. We all own our body and should feel good about it. Luckily I had a great support system and my family always said I was perfect as I was. It meant a lot that they believed in me. They understood it was about the interiority within yourself. That’s what being an artist is.”

Scarlett S. was curious about moments of performance that felt like failures, asking, “Did you ever get on stage and forget what you were doing?” While Bell doesn’t perform much anymore, she noted how hard it was for her as a dancer to remember choreography. “Sometimes I would forget one or two things, but that’s part of the process. A lot of performing is learning how you learn.”

When asked about what inspires her, Bell shared that inspiration was always everywhere. “It doesn’t happen in a direct way for me—it’s very much about the embodied work,” Bell shared. While at Spence, Bell noted that much of her performance and choreography was surreal, and mentioned Joan Miró as an inspiration. “A lot of it comes from a dream world, that space where I am still dreaming.”

More than anything, students wanted to hear from Bell how she became so successful at a young age, finding herself in the unique position of a commissioned choreographer at only 22. “It was all an accumulation of putting myself out there,” Bell responded. “Usually choreographers pursue a long performance career first, but I started out really early and hit the ground running—finding spaces, building partnerships, saying yes to as many teaching jobs as I could. That accumulated into a really strong foundation and voice. I had a lot of experiences that I could build on.”