BBC Young Dancer winner Nafisah Baba “When you see yourself represented it can mean the world”

Nafisah Baba

Contemporary dancer Nafisah Baba won BBC Young Dancer 2017 and is presenting her winning solo as part of Sadler’s Wells Sampled festival on 2 & 3 February.

Sadler’s Wells Sampled gives audiences a taste of different types of dance, from classical ballet to hip hop, contemporary and flamenco, through shows and workshops.

The Wonderful World of Dance asked Nafisah about how her life has changed since winning the award, what it feels like to dance, and as a young dancer what change she’d like to see in the dance industry:

You studied tap, jazz, ballet, contemporary, why did you ultimately choose contemporary dance as a career?

Funnily enough, I never thought I would be doing contemporary dance. I always wanted to do classical ballet – I had never done a contemporary class until dance college!

Unfortunately I didn’t go to as many auditions as I would have hoped to due to an injury, but when I heard about the Chrysalis London auditions I thought I’d at least give it a chance. I had no idea that audition would change my life.

I love how there are no boundaries to Contemporary dance – there’s a certain kind of freedom within the movement. You don’t have to look a certain way, and the creation of new dance forms through collaboration hugely excites and inspires me.

When did you know you wanted to be a professional dancer?

I think I realised I wanted to dance professionally when I went to Cuba with my dance school, the West London School of Dance, when I was 15 years old. I spent 4 weeks participating in Prodanza, a summer school and this ended with a performance at the Gran Teatro. The experience was unforgettable, and I remember coming off stage, going back to the hotel and thinking this is exactly what I wanted to do with my life! It was a great moment.

Tell us about your training to become a contemporary dancer?

I never trained to become a contemporary dancer. At college we were encouraged to be as versatile as possible, so I was trained in different styles with the hope of working as a classical or neo-classical dancer.

Chrysalis was where my love for contemporary dance flourished and I discovered new movement and the possibilities of it. It was during the first year with the company that I realised I wanted to be a contemporary dancer.

You were named BBC Young Dancer in 2017 for the contemporary category and you were the overall winner, how have these awards affected your life?

Winning BBC Young Dancer has changed my life in many ways. It has given me more self-belief and confidence, amongst many more things, and what I learnt about myself as an individual throughout will always be invaluable.

In 2017 I was nominated for a Hospital Club award in the Rising Stars category, and I was invited to perform at a TedX Women’s talk in Amsterdam which was amazing!

The opportunities have been great, and they’ve definitely helped me grow as an artist and an individual.  I will forever be grateful to the BBC Young Dancer team!

Nafisah Baba


You’re part of a post-graduate dance company Chrysalis, tell us about the company and your role?

I used to be part of Chrysalis London, but I’ve recently joined Phoenix Dance Theatre. I must say, I don’t think I’ll find a place quite like Chrysalis. The company, under the direction of Jodie Blemings nurtures individuals and their talents and skills, and aims to bridges the gap between graduate and professional. My role in the company was as a company dancer. The support, inspiration and advice that is shared at Chrysalis is hugely significant.

You’re performing as part of Sadler’s Wells Sampled festival, tell us about what you’re performing?

Yes, I’m so excited! I’ll be performing my solo from BBC Young Dancer, Inescapable.

What inspired you to take part in Sampled?

The cause of Sampled, to bring a more diverse audience to dance, definitely inspired me to take part, as well as seeing the amazing lineup!

I’m interested to know how it feels to you to perform?

I’m normally very nervous before I go on stage and when I first start. But the atmosphere in the auditorium is amazing to play off of. I love performing – the buzz of being on stage and then finishing the performance and wanting to do it all over again.

It depends what I’m doing, but I tend to feel at ease being on stage after a minute or so. I know the steps, or the routine, so it’s time to just live and enjoy being on the stage. I always say – no regrets!

Why do you dance?

I can’t really see myself doing anything other than dance for a living. I find it beautiful seeing and discovering movement and what we can do with our bodies.

I have been part of some truly special environments that have pushed, supported and inspired me in so many different ways, and the people I’ve been surrounded by have definitely made me more inquisitive and passionate about dance.

All the training, experiences and opportunities have helped me grow as an individual and I wouldn’t have any of it, had I not danced. I dance because I love it, and I haven’t yet discovered something that gives me as much freedom.

Nafisah Baba
Nafisah Baba

As a young contemporary dancer, what are your goals and aspirations for the future?

I’m still figuring out my next aspiration. My aspiration last year was to join a professional touring company and I’ve recently joined Phoenix Dance Theatre, but I have many plans for my dance career and fresh ideas too.

I would like to continue working in different professional touring companies and see where that takes me. I would love to travel to different countries and experience dance there later in my career, and I also do dream about having my own mentoring scheme in the future (after my career!).

What are your hopes for the dance industry as we move into the future?

I hope that dancers, in fact all artists, get paid for the work they do. Too many people (myself included), have worked for free in the hope of being ‘seen’ and having further opportunities or jobs offered from this.

I don’t think it’s always fair, and I know there is a whole discussion on that. Obviously, there are exceptions, and I understand that if there was a choice to work for nothing and not work at all, working for nothing would definitely be my option. However I think the exploitation of artists is not a rare thing.

You’re an associate member of Ballet Black, tell us about your role and work with this great company?

I haven’t been to class with Ballet Black for a while due to such a hectic schedule, and now moving to Leeds. But I used to do classes on Sundays at the Royal Opera House and occasionally join in with company class when I could. Ballet Black hugely inspired me when I was younger and I think it’s an incredible company doing incredible things.

Ballet Black aims to promote black and asian dancers in ballet, what do you feel the dance industry could do to encourage more diversity in dance?

I think the break down and removal of what a classical dancer should be needs to be let go, or at least loosened. There is a stereotype of what a classical dancer should look like aesthetically, but I think these attitudes and beliefs are incredibly outdated.

When you see yourself represented it can mean the world, and I think if this was shown to the younger generation it would seem possible to achieve these things. Saying this, it’s also very easy for places to showcase black and asian dancers on front covers and on social media to show they are inclusive, when the attitude is still just as present within the company.

I’ve been told and heard some ridiculous things, but I feel it’s the 21st century and people need to start accepting others for their talent (in this industry) and not over looked due to their race or aesthetics.

What advice would you give to other young aspiring dancers, who would like a career as a contemporary dancer?

Never give up, and keep pushing, even at your hardest moments. What I’ve learnt so far is to always be true to yourself, even if that means sticking out from the crowd, don’t be so hard on yourself (don’t forget we’re all human at the end of the day!), and always stay humble.

Sadler’s Wells Sampled is on 2 & 3 February, book tickets now.