Before Stephanie Powell could even walk, she was tagging along to her cousin’s dance classes in a Bakersfield garage.
The dance school’s founder, Cindy Trueblood, would pull her car out of the garage, and as music played from a reel-to-reel tape recorder, Powell would sit on the floor and watch, until soon she began to stand and mimic what the older students did.
It wasn’t long before she was enrolled as well, and performing “The Nutcracker” ballet to a 3,000-seat auditorium alongside a full-symphony orchestra. As the school eventually moved into an actual studio, and renamed itself as the Civic Dance Center, Powell fell in love with dance, and by her mid-teen years, Powell knew that dance would be a part of her future.
After high school, Powell enrolled at UC Berkeley as a sociology major with a minor in education, knowing in the back of her mind that after a career, she would likely end up as a professor.
But Powell’s dance career started sooner rather than later. After signing up for some evening classes at the nearby Oakland Ballet, right away, she found herself employed. As she completed her degree, Powell performed in local shows—a rarity for dancers, who often have to leave behind their education in anticipation of a short-lived dance career, she said.
Her time at Oakland Ballet also marked a new experience in her dance life thus far—while Powell had grown used to being the only African American ballerina, Oakland felt like “the UN of ballet,” a stark contrast to most companies that are mostly white women with a certain body type, Powell said.
Powell also considered it the catapult to her career.
“To this day, I’m eternally grateful … (artistic director Ronn Guidi) gave me principal roles, he gave me soloists roles, and really launched this sense of pride and sense of confidence in me that just because I don’t look a certain way, doesn’t mean I can’t dance,” Powell said.
Eventually, Powell decided to buy a plane ticket to New York, where she auditioned for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook at the height of the Civil Rights movement, predominantly for dancers of color.
“So I broke up with my boyfriend, I sold my laptop, and I moved to New York,” Powell said.
For the first time, Powell found herself in a studio with 52 dancers of color.
Although a European aesthetic is common in ballet, Black dancers don’t always fit that, both in skin tone and body shape, Powell said.
But Arthur Mitchell proved to the world that African American people can do ballet— and well, Powell said.
After a while, Powell was ready for her next challenge— modern dance and musical theater were still on her dance career bucket list, and she went on to dance for Donald Byrd/The Group where she performed in innovative pieces such as “The Harlem Nutcracker” set to Duke Ellington rather than Tchaikovsky, and then with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which brought Powell to Germany and across Europe.
Amid constant jetlag, rehearsing and performing, if she had a day off, Powell would make sure to explore.
“There were some dancers that it was much more important for them to sleep, or it was much more important for them to get to physical therapy because they were nursing an injury or something like that, and I nursed my injuries, but I made sure to see these places,” she said.
Powell’s trajectory shifted when her father underwent a major surgery, and she decided to complete her contract and move back to California. Although it was a difficult decision, for Powell, family came first, something she makes sure to now tell her students.
“Life is very precious, so I was happy to do it,” Powell said. “I wanted to help my mom, I wanted to be sure I was there for my dad.”
There, Powell earned a new position, and a final check off of her dancing bucket list: a role in “The Lion King.”
For the next two years, she performed as not only a dancer, but as a singer and actress as well, in multiple roles—a gazelle, a lioness, a hyena, and more—she had 16 costume changes and makeup changes in the production.
Eventually, Powell started to feel like she wanted a night off.
“Working nights all my life since I was 19 doesn’t leave for much personal life at all,” Powell said. “Most people don’t understand my life, most folks that are not in the arts.”
“I knew eventually I would need to either find an artist or change my life and start to get into some kind of field or area within my field that happened during the day,” Powell said. “So I decided to go back to school.”
Ironically, as soon as she received her acceptance letter to UC Irvine, it was announced that “The Lion King” was closing.
“It was like a door opened for me and I ran through it and went straight to Orange County and got my degree,” Powell said.
While at UC Irvine, Powell connected with Donald McKayle—an African American choreographer, and “one of the people that paved the way for all of us to sit in the same room,” Powell said.
The two became inseparable—Powell became his teaching assistant, and took his choreography class to learn how he choreographed, and McKayle even began to create dances for Powell as a soloist, which to a dancer, is an immense honor, she said.
“I thought I was pretty much in retirement right after ‘Lion King’ shut down,” Powell said. “I had done my ballet, I had done my neoclassical ballet, I had done my modern and then I had checked off my musical theater—I thought I was done, right? I was in my 30s when I went back to school. He said, ‘Oh, no, no, I have much more for you to do.’”
Together, they brought UCI to Paris, and Powell performed the solo he had choreographed.
“He kind of brought that spark back in—but it was during the daytime,” she said.
After graduating, Powell took a position at Fresno City College due to its proximity to home. As she ran the school’s dance program, Powell continued to fly to New York to perform McKayle’s solo. The distance from Los Angeles added an extra leg to each journey, which became increasingly difficult. Plus, Powell craved more of a performing arts environment that she lacked in Fresno.
In 2005, she began working at Long Beach City College, and also returned to UCI, where she stayed for the next six years.
“Eventually I got pretty tired, and I met somebody, and I got pregnant,” Powell said.
Nine and a half years ago, she gave birth to her daughter, and realized she had to let something go.
Wanting to be more present for her daughter, Powell decided to focus solely on Long Beach City College, where she has remained for the past 19 years.
“I made the right choice,” Powell said. “I feel like our student population needs a dancer of color in their lives.”
Students need to see people like themselves in order for them to feel confident to do what they love, or what they think they love, Powell said, and she has since made substantial gains in grant writing and acquiring funds for dance floors and in hiring diverse teachers.
At Long Beach City College, dancers, new and returning, find a home within the dance program, run alongside her colleague, Martha Pamintuan, Powell said.
“We welcome everybody, because people want to feel better,” she said.
Dance can serve as a sense of therapy, amid the challenges her students are facing in the outside world, said Powell.
“Folks have got some real heavy stuff on their plate. Don’t we all? I know I certainly do. My mother just passed not too long ago,” Powell said. “But even in my own grief, I can still help other people … And not to say that as soon as they walk out of that studio that the reality of the world just hits them in the face right away. But they’re able to cope a little differently.”
Powell’s last performance was in 2019 at the Lincoln Center, in honor of the anniversary of Donald McKayle’s passing. If it weren’t for the pandemic that shut down theaters, Powell said she’d probably still be dancing.
But through her work with Long Beach City College’s dance program, and as the principal interpreter of McKayle’s work, she feels fulfilled, Powell said.
“My focus is not so much on performing anymore. My students are performing,” Powell said.
“I don’t necessarily feel like I have to be back out there, on the stage hitting it, seven days, six days a week—I’m good.”
“I’ve got a 9-and-a-half-year-old that needs me, you know, I am that mom that picks up my kid after school and drives my kid to school,” Powell said. “I drive an hour to West Hollywood from Culver City, and then I drive an hour and a half to Long Beach. But that’s the kind of mom I want to be.”