What My Teacher Taught Me: Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Priyana Acharya on Erica Lynette Edwards
May 23, 2022

I met Erica Lynette Edwards when I was 17 years old, while training at Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago. She had danced with the company for 15 years before becoming the director of community engagement, and at the time I was training for Youth America Grand Prix with a colleague of hers. I would go into their office to ask questions and seek advice about my day-to-day life and rehearsals, and one day Erica asked if she could come and watch my next YAGP rehearsal. She’s been my mentor and friend ever since.

I’ve always felt a little intimidated whenever I’ve worked with Erica. Not because she is mean or scary, but because she is so impressive. Her presence in a room naturally makes you want to work hard, and meet her expectations. She doesn’t let dancers be passive, or give up on improving. Even if she knows a step or move might not be my strength, she will always push me to attempt it, and then work from there. I remember working on some choreography with her and communicating that I didn’t think a certain step looked good on my body. She asked me to try again, but approach the movement differently. That’s often how her corrections work. She warmly invites and encourages dancers to take risks, push themselves and find new paths to achieve the outcome they want.

Erica has become somewhat of a career advisor for me, too. She started her own consulting business called Cultivating Better Tomorrows, which offers anti-racism training, workshops, racial healing circles and strategic planning services for dance organizations. As a fellow woman of color, she taught me to never change myself for the person at the front of the room. Though the industry is changing, there are still many companies that use dancers of color for promos, yet never actually put them onstage. There also aren’t a lot of dancers of Indian descent in the ballet world that I can look up to. When I talk to Erica about it, she tells me to stay true to myself and to push past obstacles that may come in the way of my pursuits.

Priyana Acharya in Winning Works Performance, March 2019. Photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy Acharya

When I was 18 years old, Erica encouraged me to go to the International Association of Blacks in Dance Audition for Women of Color. While I was there, I met the artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, who would eventually offer me a second company contract—an important step in my journey. When the pandemic hit, everything became uncertain, and I suddenly didn’t know what my future would hold. Within the past three years, I was offered a second company contract elsewhere that I was unsure about. While a lot of people were encouraging me to take the opportunity, Erica gave me important advice that resonated with me. She said, “A job is a job. However, it’s important to take into account what will make you the happiest and further your career in the pathway you envision for yourself.” She supported me, and helped me feel brave enough to turn it down. Thankfully, that left me available for my current job as a Company Artist at Oregon Ballet Theatre.

While there are many corrections Erica has given me over the years, one in particular that stands out is to use my eyes, both in performance and in class. Erica knows that class isn’t necessarily my favorite part of the day, but that I love to perform onstage. So, she told me to treat class like a performance. “Don’t just stare at the mirror and critique your pliés and tendus,” she’d say. “Involve your mind and other aspects of your personality to create and tell a story. Not only will this help you enjoy class more, but it will translate to the stage, as well.” Erica’s advice has stuck with me ever since, and has become part of my muscle memory. I’ve now come into my own, and can look out into the darkness and connect with the audience. It makes the whole experience of performing so much fun.

I would not be the dancer or person I am today if it wasn’t for the inspiration and insight Erica has given, and continues to give me. She believes in me and advocates for me, and I am so thankful to have that kind of talent and intelligence in my corner. Erica is such a powerful person, and I aspire to be like her someday.

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