At age 3, Dacquiri Baptiste’s mother put her in her first dance class. What began as a creative outlet for a child has grown into an amazing, behind-the-scenes career in the arts. After 19 years with the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York City, she joined the Orpheum Theatre Group in 2019 as Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. With an extensive background in bringing artistic visions to life on stage, she has seamlessly made the transition to shaping the audience experience and is helping steer the legendary theater to the future with a hefty dose of positivity and optimism. Meet our newest FACE of Memphis, Dacquiri Baptiste!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in San Antonio and moved to Los Angeles when I was 7. It was very eye-opening for me. Not only was it a bustling metropolis, but I realized there were a bunch more people in the world that looked like me. In San Antonio at the time, the only other black people I knew were family and close friends.
What did you love about dancing?
The freedom and the space, which is contrary to what most people think about ballet. I felt at home in the dance studio, with the type of culture created in that environment. I was in dance classes with like-minded individuals, hearing French and beautiful classical music all the time. Even to this day, I hear classical music and it just makes me feel good. And there was a discipline factor that I didn’t appreciate much in the moment, but as I look back, I realize how helpful it was.
How did you pursue dancing as you grew older?
From the 10th to the 12th grade, I went to Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, which I felt was the mecca of arts for that age group. The school is free, but you have to audition to get in. Kids attended from all over LA. I went to school with people who took the bus, or got BMWs for their 16th birthdays, but were all in classes together. Environments like that expand your horizons and motivate you – and keep you grounded at the same time.
Did you have a goal of being a dancer professionally?
I was always passionate about dance, but I can’t say that I went to my high school because I wanted a career in dance. I just wanted to be there in that moment. Honestly, I never thought about it. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I like being transparent about that because I think other people may need to hear that it’s okay to not always know.
I graduated from high school and was set on college. I picked a school and was accepted – and a week before my deposit was due, I told my mom that I didn’t want to go; I wanted to go to New York and audition for The Ailey School instead. Luckily, I have a very supportive mother!
I auditioned, got accepted, and moved to New York about four weeks later. At the time, The Ailey School offered a three-year certificate program. In addition to taking at least 17 dance classes a week, I worked three jobs. I was also on work-study, so I had the opportunity to experience different facets of the organization behind the scenes.
How did you transition from performing to an off-stage career in theater?
I was in classes with the best dancers from around the world – not just LA or New York. Halfway through the program, I started to realize how far my talent was truly going to take me and thinking about how I was going to eat and pay my bills. I recognized that although I loved dancing, it probably wasn’t going to be what I want to do for work. I wasn’t money-driven, but I was trying to be as realistic as I could.
I finished in December 2000 and got a job with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in ticket sales for their New York season. When that finished, I had no idea what to do next. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay in New York. My former boss called me up and asked if I wanted to go on tour with the company, and I said sure! Who wouldn’t want to go on tour with the company? I went on the road in 2001 as the merchandise manager, which was basically just me selling t-shirts.
It was an eye-opener. People come to the theater and have no idea how much work goes into getting the curtain up. I’d never thought about it myself until I went on the road. I remember being at my first load-in in Detroit, Michigan and realizing that I wanted to learn everything about production. I opened myself up to the idea that I could be influential to what happens on the stage by being in a supportive role.
What drew you to move South?
In October of 2018, I got a call asking me to consider the job at the Orpheum. My immediate reaction was no! Then Brett Batterson came to New York and invited me to breakfast and of course, I went. He asked me to come to Memphis when my season was over – I thought, well, there’s no harm in that. The job sounded much better from Brett than it had on paper. I came in January, met with everyone here, and Brett drove me around the city.
When I got back home, I didn’t talk about my trip. My husband finally asked me what I thought. I said, “I think we’re going to move to Memphis.” And he said, “Good, because I’ve already packed!” He was ready to go. We were living in a two-bedroom, two-story walk-up in Brooklyn, convincing ourselves that it was okay. In Memphis, we knew we’d be able to provide a good life in a family-centered city with a slower pace.
What surprised you most about Memphis?
The arts scene. I was surprised by how much you can do here. It wasn’t because I didn’t think Memphis had anything, but I was shocked and happy at how much arts and culture matters to the people of Memphis and how much is always available. I love it!
What has been your biggest challenge?
COVID-19 has posed a huge challenge for theaters, and the situation has been ever-changing. I read a great analogy that we are flying a plane at the same time as we build it. In normal times, we have a season mapped out and certain expectations of how the year is going to go and deal with issues within that framework. My personal challenge has been to re-train my brain to deal with the challenge of constant change and reshaping my inner will to be my best self for my job and for my team.
The Orpheum has a rich and amazing history. What are you hoping to bring to the theater’s legacy?
The Orpheum will celebrate 100 years in 2027. I take a long-term, broad-stroke vision of getting us there. I want the Orpheum to be relevant and prevalent by staying ahead of the curve in things like technology and stagecraft. I want to help set the Orpheum up for the future.
Where can we find you on your days off?
I love discovering new spots in Memphis. The parks are fantastic – my family has really appreciated them during COVID – and we also enjoy spending time at the Memphis Zoo. Every Saturday, you can find my husband and me at The Liquor Store for brunch. I also love discovering new cocktails!
What’s your best piece of advice?
My grandfather always said to try something new every day.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Jeopardy, travel, and tequila.
Thank you, Dacquiri! All photos courtesy of Dacquiri Baptiste unless otherwise noted.
To meet more inspiring Memphis women, visit our FACES archives.