Solei Niusulu loves a challenge. When the seventeen-year-old Lawton ballerina — who will be attending the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute (OSAI) for the third year in a row — performed the lead role with the Wichita Falls Ballet Theatre in their production of The Firebird, she worked hard to change up her usual free-flowing and fluid dance style to the sharp and fast moves required by the part.
“[That part] was like everything I'm not as a dancer,” Solei says. “When the final performance came, it was just very out of my comfort zone. But I did my best. I left it all out there and I was really proud of how I did.”
Solei credits her ability to adapt to roles like the one in The Firebird, which pushed her into exciting new territory as an artist, with the rigor of the artform itself.
“In my opinion, ballet is one of the hardest types of dance there is. It's extremely frustrating and it takes a lot of time,” she says. “I think I just really love the challenge of it, because you're not going to see progress every day, but if you keep working hard, you're going to see a little difference.”
Solei’s dance journey was inspired by her favorite TV show as a kid, Disney Channel’s Shake it Up!, a sitcom about two best friends who are also backup dancers. Soon she began taking ballet and hip hop at Southstar Dance Academy in Lawton, adding more classes every year. When she was 14, she attended her first summer intensive at the University of Oklahoma.
“It was kind of my first time being surrounded by so many dancers, like serious dancers who knew that they wanted to be professional,” Solei says. “A lot of them were so much better than me and I just remember being so inspired by it. I was like, ‘I want to be in this environment for the rest of my life. I don't want to graduate high school and just be done dancing … I want to be a professional dancer.'”
Today Solei dances six days a week, putting in long hours of classes and production rehearsals. “I miss so much of the high school experience just because I'm always at dance. So, I would definitely say I feel like I'm missing out sometimes, but when I'm performing in front of a lot of people, I know that's where I'm supposed to be,” she says. “Every time I dance, I'm like, ‘I feel like this is what I'm supposed to do for the rest of my life.’”
Three years ago, Solei started an Instagram account called Samoan Ballerina to document her dance journey. Today her follower count is over 1,000 and growing.
“It can be kind of scary to put yourself out there and to put your work out there,” she says. “But I really believe that you're not going to grow unless you're uncomfortable and you're being pushed out of your comfort zone.”
In January, Solei pushed herself out of her comfort zone yet again by applying to become an ambassador with Brown Girls Do Ballet. The organization’s mission is to uplift and support underrepresented populations in ballet programs through performances, photo exhibitions and by providing resources and scholarships for the development and training of young dancers of color. “I didn't think I'd get it,” Solei says. “But I always thought it was a really cool organization to spread diversity in the ballet world.”
She did get it. And now she’s started to network with other young ballerinas of color.
“I definitely want to keep doing this, just spreading awareness that there can be more diversity in the ballet world,” Solei says. “I think it's getting better … but when you get to the professional companies, you kind of see there's not really any diversity there.”
Solei says she’s noticed that more young artists are using their work as a platform to create awareness for important causes, and she hopes to use hers to help make space for others. In the meantime, she’ll be dancing her way to OSAI 2021 for another life-changing summer before she heads off into the world to change it for the better.
Image credit: Kayla Simpson Photography