NAAZIR AND SHAAKIR MUHAMMAD IN NEW YORK, APRIL 2015. STYLING: TONY IRVINE. PANTS: ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA COUTURE. SHOES: DRIES VAN NOTEN. COSMETICS: LAB SERIES, INCLUDING INSTANT MOISTURE GEL. HAIR: TOMO JIDAI FOR ORIBE HAIR CARE/STREETERS. MAKEUP: MARIEL BARRERA FOR JOE MANAGEMENT. SPECIAL THANKS: DUNE STUDIOS.
They’ve been called the Billy Elliots of Brooklyn. But when identical-twin brothers Shaakir and Naazir Muhammad sit down on a couch in a photo studio in the West Village, they still possess the mix of millennial-teen self-assuredness and nervous phone-tapping energy you’d expect of any 17-year-olds. Yet with their gift for pliés and pirouettes and the Hollywood good looks to back them up, the two are tipped to be the American Ballet Theatre’s next big thing.
Currently attending ABT’s pre-professional school, they will soon know if they’ve been accepted into the company. “If you don’t take both of us, you can’t have either of us,” says Shaakir. Luckily, sibling pairs are not uncommon in dance. In fact, it’s an asset—they’re each other’s perfect understudies. And while they admit to fighting over clothes, they don’t compete for girls. “We have two different types,” laughs Shaakir. Nor do they fight for roles in productions. “He’s tricky, more Brazilian in his movements,” says Naazir. Shaakir elaborates: “Naazir is more noble. So if we both get cast for Romeo, he’d be the first. But if we were both to get cast in Le Corsaire, he’d be Conrad and I’d be the slave.”
The two were 6 years old when first introduced to classical ballet at their Canarsie public school through Elevate, a youth-residency program of Brooklyn Ballet. Despite the expected derision from their friends, something about ballet clicked for them, and against their parents’ initial wishes, they began sneaking to practices after school. By the time they were 12, they’d won full scholarships to the ABT school without quite realizing what it meant for their futures. “At first it was just something that we enjoyed,” says Naazir. “We didn’t know there were people who did this for a living.”
But no sooner had they learned that this shared passion could be a career than they found out that their color might be an issue. “There hasn’t exactly been a situation where someone was like, ‘No, you can’t do this because you’re black,’ ” says Naazir. “But it seemed like there were roles we couldn’t do as children. Every boy wants to be the Nutcracker. But you can’t have a black Nutcracker and a white prince.”
With black dancers making so may strides in ballet-ABT soloist Misty Copeland was recently on the cover of Time—the brothers Muhammad are confident that the time for change is now. “For hundreds of years you’ve seen white dancers doing lead roles,” says Shaakir. “Soon it will become a regular thing where if you see a black man doing Romeo, it’s just a black man doing Romeo.”