A dancer who breaks the mold
Nakeema Ray's artistry belies the myths about who can succeed in the world of modern and contemporary dance.
Walking into her first dance studio, Nakeema Ray was mesmerized by the “tall girls” in little point shoes moving in front of big wall mirrors.
“I want to do that!” she told her mother. She was three years old.
Now proficient in jazz, tap, hip hop, ballet, and musical theater styles, Ray is a student in the U of M Dance Program, where she’s become an accomplished modern and contemporary dancer. An enrolled member of the Upper Skagit Tribe in Washington State, she is a descendant of the Choctaw Nation, Klamath Tribe, and Swinomish Tribe.
For example, “In my dance history class, we’re learning about the big and smaller names who were never recognized but had a big impact on what ‘modern art’ is today.
“I think that’s really vital—to know where art comes from.
“I also returned to my Native roots with powwow dancing when I started college here at the University of Minnesota. I love every second of it, and it will forever be my passion to learn more of my culture and where I come from through my dancing passion.
“I learned from my Native culture that the drum is sacred and universal to all humans since it represents the first thing all of us hear—the drumbeat of the heart of our mothers in the womb. That reality is powerful to me and shows how all humans connect through music, movement and art.”
She was fascinated to learn that legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham found inspiration from Native American tribes and communities—“but where the tribes were wasn’t recognized.”
Ray also learned that tap’s roots lie in Irish step dancing, and hip hop’s in the African diaspora.
“We’re trying to find the diaspora of different cultures and communities—this all had to come from somewhere,” she explains. “We need to focus on the root of it all.”
Guardian of the flame
“Growing up, there was very little representation of Indigenous people,” Ray says. “As I grow and learn who I am, I always ask myself what I can do to bring my community into societal norms and share my culture with the mainstream society. I realized that how people connect is through music, art, and dance. Dance is sacred to us, and it is what connects us to our ancestors.