The excerpt below comes from a story written by Courtney Celeste Spears, a professional dancer with the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. While growing up in Baltimore, Courtney frequently traveled to The Bahamas. Of Bahamian descent, and with family still residing in The Bahamas, she considers the country a second home.
The entire story can be found in my best-selling book Dance Adventures: True Stories About Dancing Abroad.
Make Me Proud, Ms. Courts
I woke up to the zzzzzz of my phone vibrating under my pillow. Opening one eye, I saw that it was still dark outside.
Who would be calling me this early? I wondered.
Looking at the caller ID, I saw it was Terri Wright, my dear friend and fellow company member at Ailey 2, the junior company of Alvin Ailey. I knew this call must be important. Today was a big day for us, after all. Terri, the other company members, and I would be traveling from New York City to Nassau, The Bahamas, as part of our international tour.
I picked up the phone.
“Hello?” I said, feeling groggy.
“Where are you?” Terri asked. “Are you meeting us on the bus?”
I pulled the phone away from my face and looked at the time: 6:45 a.m. Panic shot through me like a lightning bolt, jolting all the sleepiness out of my system. I’d set my alarm for 4 a.m.! Why hadn’t my alarm gone off?! The entire company was about to leave the studio to get on our bus to the airport, and I was still in bed.
“I’m meeting you at the airport,” I told Terri, trying to play it cool. “Gabriel and I are on our way. Don’t worry!”
I hung up and immediately sprinted down the hall to wake up my best friend, then-roommate, and fellow company member, Gabriel Hyman. For some reason, his alarm hadn’t gone off either. As Gabriel realized what was happening, he too panicked. Luckily, we had packed the night before. We quickly threw on clothes, brushed our teeth, and called an Uber.
Twenty minutes later, as we sped toward the airport, I felt as if I had a steel weight in my stomach. It was my second year with the company, and this part of the tour had been arranged specifically because of me. How would it look if I were late to the airport? And what would happen if I missed the flight?
I thought about how upset our artistic director would be, and then my thoughts shifted to my grandmother. What would it be like for her to show up at the Nassau airport and see all the company members but me? How would that make her feel? We were very close, and I looked up to her immensely. I did not want to let her down.
I stared at the clock in the Uber and prayed that we wouldn’t hit any traffic. We were lucky, and arrived at the airport just in time to meet everyone else at check-in.
As we went through security, boarded the plane, and sat down in our seats, I remained in a slight state of shock. Because of this, the significance of what was about to happen did not hit me until two hours later when I looked out my window and saw that we were officially over The Bahamas’ waters.
From the time I was a child, I have traveled to The Bahamas a minimum of three times each year, and sometimes up to eight. I have spent every holiday, spring break, and summer on the islands, so by now I could tell when the plane crossed from US territory to that of The Bahamas.
As I looked down, the view of Florida was slowly replaced by the dark blue ocean. As the plane approached The Bahamas, the color of the water changed to an ombre of lighter blues, interrupted only by tiny white- and peach-colored island droplets. The scene grew increasingly beautiful as more and more of The Bahamas’ 700 islands came into view. The one I could most easily identify was the island of Eleuthera, a thin strip of land that’s about a mile wide and 110 miles long. Watching this scene from the window was something I always looked forward to.
While so much of this journey seemed familiar, this time there was something very different: I was going as a member of Alvin Ailey. My company members and I were on the way to my spot, my home, my sanctuary. This trip was the culmination of the work we had done as a dance company, as well as the effort that my community in The Bahamas had put in. Once they had heard that I was in the company, my grandmother, friends, and family had become relentless about finding a way to bring Ailey 2 to the islands.
As the plane touched down in Nassau, I thought of my grandfather, Frank Theodore Sweeting, who was still alive at the time. He was, as Bahamians say, “born bred Bahamian.” He was my giant: a tall, dark-chocolate man whose smile was contagious. He’d played baseball for The Bahamas National Team and led them to victory, earning him a spot in The Bahamas Baseball Hall of Fame. He was self educated and self employed as a taxi cab driver. This was how he’d managed to put all of his kids through college, keep a home that we all treasured, travel to New York for family vacations, and even have money to put in my pocket every time I came home. He was, and still is, my hero.
“Go and make me proud, Ms. Courts,” he would tell me. “Always put God first, and go make me proud.”
And here I was with my entire dance company, about to dance for my Bahamian community and to introduce Ailey to the country I so loved. Furthermore, I knew that my mother, my Pops (stepdad), my father, and my brothers had all flown to Nassau to see the performance that night. This was the ultimate proud moment. Overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement, I began to cry.
As we exited the airport with our bags in hand, we were met by my grandmother, Andrea Sweeting; the director of the National Dance School of The Bahamas, Mr. Robert Bain, and Mr. Bain’s right-hand woman, Ms. Renee Davies. These were the people who had taken the lead on bringing us to Nassau, which had been no easy task. To secure the funding, my grandmother, Mr. Bain, and Ms. Davies had written letters to the government and to businesses. They’d also worked with local vendors to secure discounted hotel rooms, airfare, and the work permits required for us to perform in the country. They’d even found a gorgeous place for us to perform: a big theatre at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island.
My grandmother was waiting for me outside with a huge smile and her arms open, ready to give me a giant hug. I was thrilled to see her.
“We’re here, Grammy!” I said, embracing her. My grandmother or my grandfather had always picked me and my family up from the airport. When I was a child, I would run out to see them while my mom waited for our bags.
“We have some very special things planned for you,” my grandmother told me.
I had been expecting this, trusting that my community would welcome my colleagues in the typical warm way we are known for. If you ever visit The Bahamas with a Bahamian – or even just as a tourist without any connections – you’ll notice how inclusive the community is. We Bahamians love to rep where we’re from, and we want to show you a good time, feed you, and tell you about the culture.
“The island has been buzzing with excitement,” my grandmother said.
I felt myself blush. That year, I happened to be the Ailey 2 poster girl, so pictures of me dancing were plastered all over The Bahamas on the ads for the show.
“When everyone heard there was a Bahamaian in the company and that you were the woman on the poster, they were thrilled,” my grandmother informed me.
Tickets had sold out, she added, and my mom was receiving tons of messages from her friends.
“Dede, is this your Courtney performing?” they asked. “Is she really coming to Nassau? If so, I have to see this! I have to see her dance.”
“Yes, that’s her!” my mom would reply. “That’s our girl.”
The upcoming event was even more exciting because of its rarity. Despite the fact that it is less than a three-hour flight to New York City from the islands, dance doesn’t travel to The Bahamas in the way that it could. Most dance companies never come, and many Bahamians haven’t seen professional dance.
About the author:
Courtney Celeste Spears is a professional dancer with the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. While growing up in Baltimore, Courtney frequently traveled to The Bahamas. Of Bahamian descent, and with family still residing in The Bahamas, she considers the country a second home.
Courtney has performed and taught dance in many countries, including Japan, France, and Germany, where she performed for former US President Barack Obama. She has been featured in publications such as Vogue, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair.
In 2017, Courtney co-founded ArtSea Dance, a Caribbean-based organization dedicated to bridging the gap between young local dancers and the vast dance world abroad. This work is a part of her mission to use dance as a vessel to give back to the community.
Most recently, Courtney signed with Wilhelmina Models, enrolled in Harvard Business School’s Crossover into Business Program, and received an Emmy nomination for her role in A Mother’s Rite, choreographed by Jeremy McQueen’s The Black Iris Project.
Courtney is an alumna of the Baltimore School for the Arts, and graduated summa cum laude from Fordham University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance and a degree in communications.