The Build: Notes on Progression from Lifelong Athletes
Featuring professional dancer Leonardo Brito
HOW DID YOU GET INTO DANCE?
My sister and I were taking dance classes through a social project where we would do after-school work, singing lessons, capoeira lessons, and dance. I got into it because why not? I dedicated myself to it, and then I realized I could have more opportunities. So I went to Rio City, the big city, and attended the School of the Municipal Theater. I was in the theater every day, and it was super fun and exciting. Later, I got scholarships to go to Miami and then New York. That's when I thought, "Okay, I'm not so bad at this, and it's getting me places I didn't imagine I could reach before.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO NEW YORK CITY?
Back home in Rio, they had this modern dance congress, and at the end of the Congress, they selected three dancers to spend a month in New York City to take classes. In my year, the budget was really low, so I was the only one picked. But it was a really cool opportunity for me to come and dance, and they would pay for everything. I took dance classes in New York for a whole month. I knew I wanted to make the most of it, so I knocked on the director's door at Alvin Ailey and said, "Hey, you know, I took your class yesterday. I want a scholarship here." I took his ballet class, and he granted me a scholarship.
When I came, though, I only had a scholarship for the summer program. But I knew I matched the profile, and I was confident I would stay for the whole year. So I came for the summer, but I came prepared with all my paperwork and clothes, knowing I would stay for a whole year. And I did.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE, DANCING WITH A PRESTIGIOUS NEW YORK CITY DANCE COMPANY?
It was really fun. I spent two years in school and two years in the junior company. My two years in school were really rough. I was 19 and knew no English at all. Oh Lord. And I had to figure it out. It was really hard. I started my first classes at 8.30 am and was washing dishes and doing deliveries until 2.30 am the night before. So I tell everyone that my first year here was definitely the hardest year of my life so far.
Alvin Ailey provided a lot of technique. I was taking like four or five classes a day, learning to work in a lot of different styles of dance – jazz, capoeira, ballet, and more. In the junior company, you're supposed to stay four years in school, but they decided to hire me after two years. I don't think I totally grew artistically in those two years in the junior company because, you know, it's a process. But now I do feel a lot more mature, even with my choices of dance, you know, because sometimes silence, not moving, says a lot more than movement.
WHAT IS YOUR TRAINING REGIMEN LIKE?
I like to start my day with a normal gym workout. As a male dancer, there's a lot of lifting, too, of the girls. I have two labrum tears and need to make sure my shoulders and my whole upper body are strong enough for the work I have to do. Then I run to my ballet class and start rehearsals with my company from there.
I also love yoga. Oh Lord, I love yoga so much. Yoga is so close to dance in some ways because of the flow and the movement, lots of stretching and strengthening. My body really likes it. I've been really into these hot yoga sessions. There's a place in New York called Modo Yoga in the West Village. Oh Lord, Modo is so fun. I feel like all the yogis are really there. I'll go to Modo if I want a power workout. There's also a studio on Fifth Ave called Fierce Grace. It's extremely cute, so nice. I go to Fierce Grace if I want to relax a little bit more and release my muscles.
A PEAK PERFORMANCE EXPERIENCE?
I was performing with the Joyner Company of Alvin Ailey, and that was the principal role for the night. I think for a foreign person who spoke no English when I got here and went through so much in that first year, being on stage with the company that I really wanted to dance with in New York City was a special moment. My colleagues from the school were there, and so many people brought me flowers. I really felt like I did a good job, and that was really special.
DO YOU HAVE ANY MANTRAS?
I have this phrase, "Nothing to prove, only to share," that I try to keep in mind. Sometimes we dance for ourselves and not for anybody else. So I concentrate on that and just try to be me.
ON DEALING WITH COMPETITION – WITHIN YOURSELF, OR WITH OTHERS?
I have so many expectations for myself, and that was good because it kept me working hard and focused on my goals. But at the same time, it wasn't so helpful because sometimes I pushed myself too hard, even when I was injured or not feeling well. I'm currently working on that too. I remember being very naive, and my English wasn't the greatest. I experienced some hurtful moments, like when I was supposed to be in school for four years, but I was only there for two and then got hired. I had to learn choreography quickly, and sometimes people looked at me funny or weren't as helpful as I wished they were. Today, if a new dancer comes to my company, I try to be understanding and helpful, teaching them what's correct
WHAT WAS DANCE LIKE AT HOME?
I remember when I was in ballet school in Rio, it was me and my friends that I forever have now. We would arrive an hour earlier and help each other warm up and stretch. We held each other's ankles and did abs, jumped on top of each other to stretch ourselves. At the end of class, too, we had that community of support.
DO YOU CONSIDER DANCE A GROUP SPORT?
I think it's a team sport. You can see it as a solo sport, and some people do, but we interact with each other so much, especially in partnering with the girls. I love the feeling of dancing together, looking at each other's eyes on stage, really touching and feeling each other. And being a male dancer, I get to do a lot of lifting, which adds to the team aspect of dance.
HOW DOES DANCE INFLUENCE YOUR BODY AND IDENTITY?
Dance is very physical. There was an article that said dance was one of the most physically demanding jobs in the US. Because it's so physical, it affects our mental health a lot. I'm currently in a place of understanding that and trying to take it easier on myself. I just had another surgery and was out for 10 months, which was really hard. I had to come to terms with not being able to dance like I used to. It affected my identity because dance had been such a big part of my life.
Dance has given me so much, so the 10 months I was out due to injury were incredibly challenging. It felt like I lost a part of my identity. When I returned, it was different, but I accepted that fact. I can still dance and do many things, although maybe not as I did a year or a few years ago. The competitive environment and the expectations I set for myself can affect my mental state. Sometimes, when injured, I wonder if others are judging or laughing at me, but I try to remind myself that I am only human. Repeating the same moves multiple times can be tough, but I've learned that it's okay to have limitations and to take care of myself.
Dance is a part of me, but it doesn't define my entire being. I'm aware of my worth as a beautiful human with many qualities beyond being a dancer. However, in those moments when I'm deeply immersed in dance, I might feel like I've lost some aspects of my identity.
WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY?
Being in nature makes me very happy. Growing up in Brazil, I used to go to the beach daily and swim a lot, so I have a deep connection with nature. It aligns with my passion for movement, just like dance does. Additionally, I'm very much a family-oriented person. I have a brother who is ten years younger than me, and it feels like I've been a dad since I was ten. The love I have for my family and friends is essential to me. I find joy in sharing and spreading a bit of love and culture through my art. After performances, it's heartwarming to see little kids, or little Leos as I call them, getting inspired and seeing possibilities for themselves. I didn't always see what lay ahead for me while growing up, but things fell into place, and now I try to encourage others to find their passion and pursue it. When I perform, I carry a mantra in my mind, reminding myself to perform as if a little Leo is watching, just like I once did.
FAVOURITE THING TO WEAR WHILE DANCING?
I love the Pruzan Straight Marathon Shorts. They are amazing for ballet class. You guys have no idea, no idea. They hold your waist in so you're tight with that lift that you need for the ballet class. I have pieces of elastic that I would put in my waist to take ballet class. It's literally what the shorts have. So it gives you already that little support and lift so you just stand different. You're just like, 'Oh, I feel lifted.' It's just that feeling and sensation of feeling lifted.
Shop Leo's Looks
Photography and Video: Aramis Alvarez and Lexy Copithorne
Video Edit: Dominic Watton