Our maids would take us to their voodoo celebrations,” recalls Sara Yarborough of her Haitian childhood. “Then the drums would get to me, and I’d begin to move.” The dancer is now 23 and still moving, exhilarated now by packed houses from Manhattan to Moscow. Even among the exciting young multiracial performers who make up New York’s Alvin Ailey dance troupe, just returned from a triumphant seven-week tour of Europe, Sara shines with a special grace.
For Sara the path was always clear. Her American mother, Lavinia Williams, had danced in the first all-black ballet—Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual—in 1940, and for two decades taught the children of Haiti’s first families as director of the Academy of Classical Ballet and Folklore in Port-au-Prince. Granted a George Balanchine scholarship at 13, Sara, Brooklyn-born but raised in Haiti, experienced her first brush with bigotry. “When I first came here,” she says in lilting English tinged with Creole, “I stayed in South Carolina and went through it all—the separate bathrooms and sitting upstairs in the movies. But deep down I knew it was only a study course.”
By age 17, Sara was in New York dancing professionally with the Harkness Ballet. Two years later, she switched to Ailey. Beyond her faultless classical technique and impressive dramatic range, Sara’s greatest asset is the intensity of her stage presence, from her highly charged portrayal of a doomed rock star in Flower to Cry’s shimmering essence of black womanhood. “Haitians aren’t conscious of themselves when they dance,” she explains. “While dancing, I get completely possessed, I feel it coming the night before. It starts coming and you can’t remember what you did.”
No less passionate about her health, Sara spends hours scouring organic food stores in her midtown New York neighborhood for yogurts and cereals. “People who eat meat have a certain odor,” she insists. “I notice it in the people I work with.” Sara’s spartan regimen also includes a weekly 36-hour fast and 12 hours of sleep each night.
The sylphlike dancer’s zeal for organic living presents some problems, particularly when the company is on tour. Says Sara: “I travel heavy. I mean heavy. I carry a kitchen—my own stove, my pressure cooker and enough grains for the whole tour.” Sara’s solution: put wheels on all her luggage.
Logistics aside, Sara has been an enthusiastic trouper ever since she accompanied Alvin Ailey on its first trip to the Soviet Union two years ago. “They had never seen anything like us,” she recalls. “They kept coming up to feel the boys’ Afros.” Now back in New York, fresh from a tour of Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia—and more rave reviews—Sara and the company are girding for an 18-city U.S. tour. She is thrilled at the prospect. “During the season I set myself on a high, and I don’t come down until the end.”