A Story from Tristen Matthews

In this Black History Month.

We are highlighting the talented Gin Dancer, Tristen Matthews. Here, she shares her story of growing up and pursuing her dance journey.

My mother always told me that I twirled in the womb instead of kicking like my brothers. Although not a dancer herself, she always had a strong love for the arts. When she was in college, she enjoyed going to see dance performances with her friends on the weekends. When she graduated, she got herself season tickets to the Kennedy Center so that she never missed out on a performance, especially The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. When I was 18 months she was watching the Kennedy Center Honors, and they were honoring Judith Jamison, who is a prominent figure in the modern dance world. She was the principal dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater until 1980 and later became the ArtisticDirector of the company until 2011. My mom told me that I came into the room, stared at the TV, and just started dancing and twirling. She was in awe because I wasn’t old enough to understand what I was watching and I had no idea who Judith Jamison was at the time or why she was being honored. She thought to herself, “Wow, my little girl is going to be a dancer” and knew instantly that I needed to take dance lessons. Shortly after, she put me into a program at a recreational center and after a few weeks, the instructor told her that I needed to go to a real studio where I could get advanced training because I had a gift. 

At age 4, I auditioned and got in to a youth residency program run by Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) at the Kennedy Center. Being a part of this residency program was really special to me because I danced in a very diverse environment and felt a strong sense of community. It was really empowering to be in a program with a bunch of talented kids with all different backgrounds. I didn’t know at the time how lucky I was to be training with Robert Garland, who was a former dancer at Dance Theatre of Harlem and is now their Artistic Director. Looking back, I realize how amazing this opportunity was. Even at seven years old, I knew that when Aurther Mitchel himself walked into the room to observe class, that I was in the presence of a dance legend. I have a lot of great memories from my time spent at DTH. Whether he was tossing his ballet slippers at us when he needed us to focus, or making up catchy songs to help us memorize our ballet port de bras positions, Mr. Garland always made sure that our hard work was matched with a light hearted and fun environment. No matter what, he made sure we understood how important it was to always believe in ourselves, always train hard because ballet technique is important, and never forget that black and brown dancers can be just as successful and are just as beautiful in ballet. In middle school, my family and I moved to Athens, Greece, and I attended St. Catherine’s British Embassy School. During my second week of school, I auditioned for the annual dance production. This production was supposed to be mainly for the high schoolers but the middle schoolers were allowed to be in one piece. In the audition we were asked to learn multiple jazz combinations. While marking the combinations off to the side, all of the girls nearby were surprised because I was able to do double pirouettes and was also really flexible. I was still extremely new at this time and was the only American in my entire school, so to have them all crowded around me asking me to demonstrate combinations made me feel like a celebrity. The teacher, Gina Veale, came over to see what all the commotion was about and seemed to be impressed as well. She made an exception for me and cast me in four pieces and made me an understudy for all of the ones I was not cast in. This was a pivotal moment for me because myhard work and dedication was recognized even in a new school in a different country. While living in Greece I also took ballet lessons at a small dance studio in the area. My teacher, Vivian Papathiki, taught in Greek and it was up to me to figure out what was going on. At first I was really stressed out because I had never learned in another language before, and I had definitely never had to figure out what corrections someone was trying to give me while speaking in another language. My Greek improved pretty quickly and I started to get the hang of it. With it being such a small studio; sometimes with the class size just being me and another student; I was able to get a lot of individualized attention and my ballet really improved. She was such a sweet and passionate teacher and cried when I moved back to the United States. I always wish that I could find my way back to her so that she could see me now. I think that she would be extremely proud of how far I’ve come. 

When I moved back to Virginia in the middle of High School, I started dancing at Metropolitan School of the Arts and was a part of the Royal Academy of Dance program that the school offered. I also took Jazz, Modern, and Contemporary classes. I then went off to dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where my love for Modern and Contemporary really grew. My Junior year of college is where I felt the transition happen between being a dance student and being an artist. Everything that any teacher had ever told me just started to click and I became a much stronger dancer that year. Going to a conservatory where I got to dance all day, every day, was not only a dream come true for me but was also really life changing for how I approached dance. Up until college, it was something I did after school or on the weekends and although it was hard work, it was also really fun and getting cast in shows put on by my studio was a guarantee. In college, I had to audition for every single thing and it pushed me to work harder and prepared me for a professional career. I found the beauty in the experience when I was able to work that hard, be that exhausted, and still have fun. My senior year I attended the Ailey School in NYC and this was a full circle moment for me. The 18 month old who stood in front of the TV and danced when Judith Jamison was on the screen, was now a 21 year old living in NYC and attending an orientation led by the faculty of the Ailey School and Judith Jamison herself. My dance journey essentially started with her, so I wanted to pinch myself. It turns out that she wasn’t actually supposed to be there that day at all, but decided to stop by to meet all of the new students. I felt that it was actually fate that brought us together. 

Graduating during Covid was really tough because the world was on pause. I tried to audition for any and everything that was available and didn’t have any luck. I tried zoom auditions, video submissions, and reaching out to dance companies. I was constantly asking my younger brother to hold the camera up for me as I did take after take of audition videos. I was so worried he would get annoyed with me, but he was actually really dedicated to holding the camera perfectly still and not making any noise in the background. However, no matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to get into anything. It was really hard at first because I felt like everything I had worked for may have been for nothing. I constantly thought to myself that I wouldn’t get a chance to dance again. Then one day, I saw an audition notice for Gin Dance Company and immediately reached out to Shu-Chen Cuff to see if I could audition. I was so delighted by the idea that my first time being in a dance company would be one where the Founder and Artistic Director was awoman. I was really nervous to audition, but was still excited because there were a few familiar faces in the Company already. After the audition Shu-Chen pulled me aside to let me know if I had been hired or not. In my head I had prepared myself for any outcome, but of course was hoping I danced well enough to get in. Shu-Chen smiled, told me I was a beautiful dancer, and asked me to join the company. I was overwhelmed with emotions and hugged her and thanked her for giving me my first professional dance opportunity. Being in a dance company was always a dream that I had always had and I am so grateful that my dream came true.

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