- November 28, 2022
Stephanie Bastos’ body is a living autobiography.
Her flat foot, short, athletic frame and the missing part of her right leg tell the story of why she became a dancer, why she developed her craft and why she never gave it up.
Bastos is the best friend of Sarasota Contemporary Dance Artistic Director Leymis Bolaños Wilmott and the soloist who will soon perform Bolaños Wilmott’s latest work, “Timeline” — a dance theater piece about Bastos’ life.
To understand the evolution of “Timeline,” it’s only fitting to start from the beginning.
Bastos was raised by two music-loving parents who spent the early years of their relationship dancing the hustle around New York City.
“There was always music and rhythm and dance and celebration as a part of my environment,” she says.
As a child, Bastos’ mother was worried that she had a growth problem, so she put her daughter in classical ballet classes. The courses could help rotate Bastos’ hips, lengthen her spine and develop her arches, her mother was told.
At 5 years old, Bastos was hooked. She trained hard and continued to do so into her adolescence, when she auditioned and was granted admission to South Miami Junior High, a Miami magnet school for the arts. It was there that Bastos met her “guardian angel” — Bolaños Wilmott.
In middle school, Bastos was introduced to other forms of dance besides ballet. She studied modern, jazz, flamenco, tap and African dance, and she thrived on the diversity of her lessons. She loved ballet and was highly skilled at the style, but she never felt like she belonged in ballet class. Her short, muscular build and tan skin didn’t mirror the tall and slender white girls training to become ballerinas.
This continued into high school when both Bastos and Bolaños Wilmott went on to join the dance program at the New World School of the Arts in Miami.
In her high school dance classes, it didn’t matter what she looked like. She was a dancer, and that was enough.
But one late-night drive threatened all of that.
One night, at 18, Bastos found herself seated next to a friend who had fallen asleep at the wheel. The car crashed into a cement light pole, hitting the passenger side. Bastos woke up in the hospital and half of her right leg was gone.
“My mind went right into survival mode,” she says. “I was like, ‘What am I going to do, I can’t dance — I don’t have a foot.’ I told myself I would go back to school and be a therapist.”
But that night in the hospital, Bastos saw herself dancing in her dreams. She woke up the next day and decided that even if she was no longer able to pursue a professional career, she needed to continue doing what makes her most happy.
Her decision was met with support from her loved ones and fellow dancers, particularly Bolaños Wilmott, who was with her for the first fitting of her prosthetic leg. About a month after the crash, Bastos was back in dance class, which served as her physical therapy. The physical therapist she briefly worked with would fall asleep during sessions because her body was “beyond” it, so he told her the best way to recover was to return to dance.
Back at school, Bastos was able to develop her confidence. She was no longer in the shadows of the other dancers she felt outskilled by before the crash. The attention, love and support she received ignited a passion to prove her shining star status.
And she did just that, going on to become a professional dancer and dance teacher.
Watching Bastos “blossom” into a professional after the crash inspired Bolaños Wilmott to choreograph a piece about her.
“I knew I wanted to do something about her and her strength,” Bolaños Wilmott says. “I wanted a piece that would empower her and really show her off. It was hers, 100% Stephanie on stage.”
In the summer of 2015, the two came together for a week to begin the initial phase of choreography. They made a timeline of Bastos’ life to refer to, and after a great deal of reflection and guided improvisation exercises, a 10-minute piece was created.
Bastos performed the work in progress at the Sarasota Contemporary Dance Summer Dance Intensive, where they received positive reactions. Shortly after the initial performance, Bastos was invited to perform the work at the International Integrated Dance Festival in Argentina. The two met up at the festival and had five hours to rework the piece and determine lighting. The solo was performed without music to another well-receiving crowd.
Bastos returned to Sarasota a week before Sarasota Contemporary Dance’s “Voices” show in December 2015, and the pair got another four days to continue reworking and adding to the piece. The now 12-minute piece was performed with improved costuming, lighting and added music for the closing segment.
Bolaños Wilmott and Bastos met up at the end of December and early January to push the piece further and do a performance for several of their friends at their alma mater, New World School of the Arts. It was after receiving detailed feedback from many of their most trusted fellow dancers that the two got more serious about developing “Timeline.”
Between then and August 2016, Bastos received funding to develop the solo in California and she flew Bolaños Wilmott there for eight days to complete it. She performed it in San Francisco in August.
The process was demanding and fulfilling.
Being best friends who live three time zones apart, Bolaños Wilmott says it was initially hard not to spend all their time together catching up. When they got serious, however, the choreography process quickly became a form of therapy to Bastos. It allowed her to revisit difficult times that she didn’t realize she never dealt with.
Bastos could tell early on the piece was going to be beneficial for much more than just her career. She approached it as a purification process and forced herself to let down her guard.
“This really pushed me to be vulnerable and to approach myself and my own story with a whole lot of responsibility, and that's something that was new for me,” she says.
Bolaños Wilmott calls it her “heart project” because, not only did she get to dedicate more time to it than any other piece she’s created, but her heart was in it because of her relationship with Bastos. Bolaños Wilmott says Bastos could be uncharacteristically soft and defenseless with her, and it created a piece that is deeply personal and moving.
The challenge wasn’t having her open up, Bolaños Wilmott says, but to get completely outside her comfort zone. She had Bastos dance without her prosthetic leg and with her eyes closed, and repeat things “until they were uncomfortable.”
“I couldn't sit there in a therapy session and just fall apart, I didn't have that luxury,” Bastos says. “I had to perform vulnerability and falling apart, which is nothing that anybody trains you or prepares you for, so it’s still a learning process for me.”
Bastos was also challenged when they brought on a dramatist after adding a spoken word section along with a singing portion, which is a Portuguese lullaby that Bastos’ mother told her she used to sing as a child.
Distance and Bolaños Wilmott’s pregnancy proved to be small yet present obstacles for the pair, but after countless Skype rehearsals, they’ve created a 35-minute piece that Bolaños Wilmott believes will take audiences on an extremely intimate journey.
For Bastos, performing the piece is different than any work she’s experienced. She says she’s not there to entertain the audience, she’s there to be vulnerable.
“When I’m in it I feel like I’m in a dream again — I'm in complete surrender,” Bastos says. “I feel like I really bring them into my story and into my emotional state of being. I feel like I have them in the palm of my hand.”
*The print version of this story incorrectly identified the location of the "Timeline" performance in August 2016.