The Balletic Legal Scholar
Working for a more just society, dancing for the joy of it
Khiara M. Bridges could be called a law professor who dances or a dancer who teaches law, but both descriptions fail to capture the force of her twin passions. Whether the tall, graceful Bridges is conducting a Fourteenth Amendment seminar or turning en pointe as the Sugar Plum Fairy, she is thoroughly in the moment, both mind and body.
Although she doesn’t broadcast her virtuosity in one discipline while immersed in the other, word occasionally gets out, and Bridges is faced with a question that won’t go away: “How do you do it?”
“It’s a crazy existence and the only one I know,” says Bridges in her office in the School of Law tower on a typical afternoon—the associate professor of law had been up until 2 a.m. grading student papers, up again at dawn to work out with the Boston Ballet. Engaging and spry, Bridges describes herself as an unconventional ballet dancer. As she does hamstring stretches before a recent rehearsal, her dancer’s taut contours are lost in a wash-worn hoodie and outsized red BU sweatpants. But that’s not the only thing lost: under the voluminous clothes, Bridges’ body is a canvas of colorful tattoos that crawl around her ankle, up her flank, across her shoulders and back.
A Miami native who jokes that in a family of doctors, she’s the black sheep, Bridges graduated as valedictorian from Spelman College, earning a degree in three years. She went on to obtain a law degree and then a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University, where she was a member of the Columbia Law Review and the recipient of numerous awards. Folded into these pursuits was Bridges’ training at the Miami City Ballet, the Atlanta Ballet, and when she got to New York, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She has also written a book and worked as a model for Capezio dancewear.
Bridges chose this hectic and hyperactive life and revels in it. And she thrives on simple pleasures, like the quiet hours she spends with her students’ papers every weekend on the Amtrak Acela as it races along Long Island Sound to and from New York City, where she rehearses and performs. In a fiercely competitive calling, she has shared the stage with some of the finest dancers in and around New York, performing with Ballet Noir, the Hartford City Ballet, and the Brooklyn Ballet.
She takes on occasional classical roles—last winter she was the Sugar Plum Fairy in a production of The Nutcracker—but she is rarely another swan in the corps. “I can feel like a fish out of water,” she says.
For one thing, classical ballerinas don’t have tattoos. “None are merely decorative,” says Bridges of her body art, her O-shaped leather earrings swaying like tire swings. The red hibiscus blooming on one leg pays homage to her home state of Florida. The writing that spills across her shoulder blade is the last line of her thesis-inspired book, Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization, the result of her research in the obstetrics clinic of a huge, chaotic, but exceptional New York public hospital, where she spent 18 months and found herself pulled into the lives of the indigent women she studied. She took her time, going from being a fly on the wall to someone the women grew to trust and respect. Now, indelibly inked into her skin are the words, “Also reproduced is the possibility—the hope—of a different, more just, society.”
Bridges’ research at the hospital came after graduating from law school in 2002. She stayed on at Columbia to pursue a doctorate in anthropology—she was awarded a PhD in 2008—because she “wanted to learn about the law as culture.” Laws may look impressive and thorough on paper, but what she finds compelling are people’s experiences under those laws. Even laws with the best intentions are “permeated by isms,” says Bridges, who focused her research on laws governing universal health care. The gap between theory and practice became all too real during the long hours she spent among poor, mostly immigrant women in that hospital. Now an associate professor on the College of Arts & Sciences anthropology faculty as well as at LAW, she says she decided not to practice law because she’d much rather research and write.
That existence could not have seemed more remote during a New York rehearsal for a New Haven performance with Classical Contemporary Ballet Theatre, founded in 2011 by artistic director James Atkinson. Her solo, danced with a young corps de ballet from a performing arts high school, is a riveting, unpredictable mix of classical ballet moves, melded with modern and jazz. But Bridges dances it en pointe, elongated into brisk relevés and curling soulfully into moves way downtown from the clean, floaty George Balanchine ballets she and Atkinson revere.
Atkinson, also a classical ballet dancer, spotted Bridges at a master class three years ago and asked her to perform with his company. The two are friends as well as collaborators, and at this rehearsal at a midtown studio it’s just the two of them, fine-tuning moves Atkinson choreographed to the music of electronic composer Lusine. As they rehearse, Bridges sheds first the hoodie and then the sweats until her bare legs lunge, leap, and pulse in pink toe shoes. Several hours later, she grabs her bags and heads to Penn Station with little time to spare. “I have a mountain of papers to grade,” she says, her exhausted body gathering steam.
“I used to dance and know in the back of my mind that I was good at something else, so I didn’t have to be so good at dance, and vice versa, but at some point it shifted,” Bridges says, “and I had to reach for excellence in both.” She pursues both dancing and her academic efforts “doggedly,” she says. “One doesn’t take precedence over the other—each is allconsuming.”
This story originally ran in the summer 2012 issue of Bostonia.+ Comments