Breaking Barriers: Nikisha Fogo’s Journey to Ballet Stardom

    Taking on one of the most famous roles in the ballet world is pressure enough. But when Nikisha Fogo stepped out as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the San Francisco Ballet’s production of the perennial holiday favorite, The Nutcracker, last Christmas, she did so as the first Black principal dancer in the company’s history.

    “I’m not going to lie, I do feel a bit stressed about it,” says the Swedish-born dancer of her groundbreaking position. “I feel super honored to be able to kind of open doors for people, or for young dancers to look at me and feel, Wow, she’s doing what I want to do, so I can do it too.” But “with that obviously comes a lot of pressure… I feel it’s worth it if it makes it easier for other people to do it too. Representation really matters.”

    Given ballet’s historic whiteness, her remarkable rise to prominence under-scores the talent acknowledged by one critic who praised her “natural warmth and seemingly effortless command” and “lovely line and unfussy technique.” Another has celebrated her “infectious charm and humility.”

    In breaking through stereotypical barriers, Fogo has also skirted conventional ballet ways. Most dancers start training as young as three or four, but she didn’t turn to the form until she was 10. Until then, she focused on the more free-flowing style she knew at Sweden’s first hip-hop dance studio, founded by her dancer parents (her English father’s parents were from Jamaica).

    Dancing is part of me, but it’s not who I am.

    She fell in love with ballet from the start, the precision and discipline that is required, and learning “to contain myself and focus my energy. I liked the detail I had to strive toward.” Fogo may have been a latecomer, but she was a quick study. From the Royal Swedish Ballet School she went to The Royal Ballet School in London. On graduation, she joined the Vienna State Ballet, where she rose to soloist before joining the San Francisco Ballet in 2020.

    A crisis moment
    Fogo has needed to dig into some of the reserves of her drive since coming to the U.S. She arrived with just two suitcases during the pandemic. “I didn’t know anyone, and when I met people, we were all wearing masks, so I felt really disconnected,” she says.

    Then she faced a serious injury. Completing a stage rehearsal of a ballet choreographed to songs by singer James Blake, “I came off the stage, and I couldn’t walk.” Turns out a nagging discomfort she had pressed through was inflammation of a tendon in her foot that required surgery in May last year. “It was a really hard time,” she recalls, being far from the support of her family.

    But those days when her career seemed in question proved to be significant. “I had a lot of time to think,” she says. “I felt like my whole identity was dance, being a ballerina, and I had to take a step back.” Now, she goes on, “dancing is part of me, but it’s not who I am. It took a long time to understand that.”

    Recovering in time to dance in the latest season, Fogo does so with a new perspective. “As dancers, we get so immersed in what we’re doing… I felt like, ‘I really have to do this performance.’ Now I’m definitely listening to my body more… because it’s telling me something for a reason. And it’s not the end of the world if you don’t do that one performance or that one rehearsal. You have to look at the big picture, and dancing isn’t all I am, just a part of me.”

    If I really focus and put my mind to it, I can create something beautiful.

    The injury was something of “a crisis moment… I couldn’t even dance. I was thinking, What am I going to do? Since I was 10 years old, I had this goal, and now here I am: now what?” She began to reflect on what’s next, when she does finally hang up her dancing shoes. “I still don’t know, and I think it’s OK not to know,” she says, but maybe she will pursue something in the area of fashion; she makes her own jewelry and does her own makeup.

    Before then, she aspires to the crown jewel for every ballerina—the role of Odette in Swan Lake. “If you think of ballet, you normally think Swan Lake, and I feel like it would just be so awesome to do that role,” she says. “It’s so technical and you have to be strong, while at the same time delicate.”

    Fogo’s makeup time is an important part of her pre-performance ritual, following a nap on the couch while watching television and a large lunch. “Doing my makeup and hair is something that’s really calming for me,” she explains. “It’s the one thing I’m in control of at that moment; my nerves are all over the place, so I can channel it into the makeup.”

    Believe in yourself

    Physical fitness and a good diet are essential, but Fogo allows herself some guilty pleasures. “I have the biggest sweet tooth,” she admits, delighted to have found a store in San Francisco that carries some of her favorite Swedish sour gummies. “I often go there and buy $20 worth.” She also likes popcorn: “Obviously, I should eat healthy, but I just try to eat what I’m craving or what I want.”

    With an eye to whatever the future may hold, Fogo names Rihanna as an inspiration. “I’ve always loved her because she’s confident in so many ways… she does what she wants to [as] a businesswoman, an artist. In so many ways, I admire her.”

    Fogo credits the discipline of dance with forging the determination that has brought her so far. She has learned that “if I really focus and put my mind to it, I can create something beautiful,” she says. “I can inspire people and have fun, first of all.”

    With every movement and gesture having to be just-so, Fogo has learned to be resilient when facing exacting standards. “We continually look at ourselves in the mirror, the whole day,” she notes of life at the barre. “You have to be really strong and really believe in yourself and not let outside people judge you or tell you who you are or what you can and cannot do. That’s definitely something I have had to try to work on.”

    Fogo has faced prejudice on her way to the top. One of her early teachers told her she would never become a professional ballerina because her hair was too frizzy, and others have commented on it since. “There’s nothing wrong with my hair,” she says. “It’s beautiful.” Plus, “it doesn’t matter what my hair looks like: you should be looking at my dancing.” She also found herself typecast as the gypsy girl or a similar character rather than the princess, “which was a bit frustrating because I wasn’t any less capable.”

    What advice would she give to parents whose children might want to follow in her dance steps? “Support them,” she says. “If you have a passion for something, if you love something, you should definitely try to pursue it. That’s been my biggest drive through all of this: Why shouldn’t I be able to do it?”


    First of all, my parents for supporting me and believing in me, that I could do whatever I put my mind to. Also, my old director in my old company, for giving me the opportunities and freedom to do these roles… so that I can be the dancer I am today.

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