To Reach the Stage, This Dancer First Found Himself, Then Silenced Stereotypes
Nathan Féliot is defying the expectations of society and his parents to become the first dancer in his family.
"I Am First" is a series elevating people who are breaking new ground in sport and life.
At just 21, Nathan Féliot already knows what he wants more than anything in life: to become a professional dancer. And he's upending societal and familial expectations to make it happen.
"I don't want to regret anything", the French native says of his pursuit.
Nathan's journey to the stage is not unlike that of other young men who have been conditioned to think that, for them, sports start and end with competition on a pitch or court.
"At school, football was for boys and dance was for girls", Nathan, who grew up in Toulouse, says, recalling his early misconceptions. "I had this image of ballerinas doing classical dance and wearing tutus; I did not want to embrace it. I didn't know that I could challenge that gender stereotype".
So Nathan, already close with his mother and looking to spend more time with his father, tried football, like the boys in his class. And then swimming. And then athletics. And then martial arts. But he loved none of them. "The coach yells at you, there is no pleasure", he says.
Eventually, his mother also enrolled him in Le Lido, Toulouse's renowned circus academy. It was there that an instructor first recognised Nathan's potential and convinced him to pursue dance at a formal conservatory. "He brought out something that I had hidden because I didn't think it [was] possible at first", says Nathan.
"At school, football was for boys and dance was for girls … I didn't know that I could challenge that gender stereotype".
Once his passion was unlocked, however, Nathan faced another hurdle: convincing his mother, a successful engineer, that he could have a career in the performing arts. He persevered with intensive dance classes that required putting in 80 hours a week in the studio, all the while balancing a 2-year international trade programme. "It was exhausting, but it was the price to pay to do what I love", says Nathan, who still avoided having the conversation with his mum.
"I wasn't saying it directly—that I wanted to do dance—at first, because I knew it was something that would be difficult to accept", says Nathan. He adds that while his mother is proud of his dance accomplishments, she still worries (like many parents) whether her son can channel his creativity and talents into earning a living.
Nevertheless, he is as focused as ever on his goals. "I want to prove to her that I can succeed", says Nathan, who also wants to challenge misconceptions within the dance industry. He has already encountered some racial stereotypes about "how Black people dance well" but, at the same time, are not considered classical dancers. Through hard work and diligence, he wants to disprove these stereotypes as well.
Belgium is Nathan's next destination, where he has just been accepted to train at a prestigious dance conservatory's 3-year programme. And after that? He's thinking big. He is inspired by the works of acclaimed modern dance choreographers such as Jacob Jonas and James Wilton. Nathan is already contemplating what longevity in the industry could look like for him, whether it will involve reinterpreting musicals or eventually making the leap from dancer to choreographer.
"You can't be a dancer all your life", he says. "I need to secure the bag".
"I don't want to regret anything".
Words: Jennifer Padjemi
Photography: Lounseny Soumah
Film: Sara McDowell, Nathan Felix
Reported: August 2020