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Sophie Apollonia
courtesy of Instagram/@sophie_apollonia

Sophie Apollonia on navigating the world of ballet as a woman of colour

TextDazed Digital

The dancer tells her story

Sophia Apollonia is a dancer, model, movement director and actress. After training at the Royal Ballet School, Sophia has danced in productions like Swan Lake and Manon as part of The Royal Ballet. She has also performed at events including the BRIT Awards and The Royal Variety Performance. As a model, Sophia has worked with publications including Vogue and iD magazine and commercial clients like Vivianne Westwood, Charlotte Tilbury, Gareth Pue, Gucci, and Roberto Cavalli.

My insecurities with beauty all began at the tender age of 11 when I joined the Royal Ballet School. Being the only ethnic minority in my year group highlighted my awareness of being “different” to my white peers. My large afro hair was often remarked on. “Your hair is so big,” people would say, “Wow look at that texture.” I knew they weren’t being malicious, they were just curious, but it made me feel insecure and uncertain about my own beauty. My difference was compounded whenever I was in uniform. During that time there were no options for tights or ballet shoes that matched my skin colour, so once again, I was made to feel “other” than the norm.

Between magazines, music, film and television, I grew up being bombarded with Caucasian beauty standards. Surrounded by images of beautiful women like Michelle Pfeiffer, with their slender noses, slick blonde hair, lovely pale skin and striking coloured eyes, I never saw anyone who looked like me. I remember the immense pressure I felt growing up – that feeling of wanting to belong with the other dancers in my class. I began relaxing and straightening my hair, desperate to make it smooth and glossy like those beauties I was exposed to. But it never seemed to make a difference. As a teenager, none of the boys fancied me. I was always being pigeonholed as “the sassy mate” or “the joker” while my white female peers were seen as “the pretty ones” who had all the boys chasing after them. I resented looking different and yearned to be considered beautiful.

Growing up, my father would always play ska and reggae music in our household. I loved it because it got me in touch with my Jamaican roots. At the time it felt exotic and served as an amazing escape from my reality. The beats had so much vibrancy and I felt my dance training enabled me to discipline myself into strong shapes to extenuate certain classic dancehall moves. I remember so clearly as a teenager performing Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like Its Hot” underneath classical music for a performance in front of my class. I desperately wanted to bring some cultural variety into classical ballet because I knew the style of dance had room for growth and the possibility for a new wave of movement. I remember the roar of applause in the dance studio from my peers and teachers for showcasing this newness and from that moment, I realised I had an advantage – not only do I stand out, I am different and being different is cool and it’s extremely beautiful. I wanted to continue to shock audiences being the mixed-race girl with the big afro hair who could ballet dance. It was something they had never seen or have expected.

I now embrace and champion my mixed heritage by showcasing my beauty to others through modelling which I fell into purely because of dancing. I’d have casting directors approach me for campaigns because of my ambiguous look and my ability to bring a photo to life through my ballet skills. This led me to become a movement director where I teach other models how to pose and construct their body to look more dramatic and tell more of a story.

Throughout my portfolio of work as a ballet dancer and movement director, I aim to encapsulate the aesthetic of a typical fashion campaign whilst showcasing the sheer discipline and beauty of ballet as well as distinctively combining my British-Jamaican heritage. Using elements of traditional dancehall with the classical movement of ballet, the two juxtapositions of cultures are a natural marriage of new movement and one I believe we should see more of. I hope my work will inspire others to broaden the way they think about diversity within dance and advertising, and also the way in which it is captured. 

Today, I no longer relax or straighten my hair; I absolutely love my natural hair and feel comfortable in my own skin. I am proud to be different. I’m extremely honoured to represent women of colour in the dance world and want to encourage others to explore this amazing industry and be proud of their heritage.

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