Dancer and choreographer Risa D’Souza was doing a question and answer session at the end of an educational outreach performance when a little girl with vitiligo spoke up to say that she wanted to be just like Risa when she grew up. “It was amazing to be able to share that bond with her,” said Risa, who got vitiligo when she was around 10 years old. “I got to show her that you can dance on a stage – or do anything else – and have vitiligo too.”
Today, Risa continues to show up for herself and others seeking to pursue their passions despite their differences. Check out her interview with Living Dappled below.
Name: Risa D’Souza
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Years with Vitiligo: 20
LD: To get started, tell us a little about yourself.
RD: I’m a dancer, dance instructor and choreographer. I dance for Houston Contemporary Dance Company and teach dance for age seven to adults in the greater Houston area. Some hobbies I have are creating custom birthday cards, writing personalized poems, and painting my nails with festive designs, especially during the holidays. Keeping in shape is important to me. Going on runs outdoors is an enjoyable pastime for me, but I have to say my biggest passions are dancing and teaching. Family is very important to me. We love to get together to play games and hangout. I am a social butterfly and love meeting friends for dinner or a night out on the town.
LD: What inspires you as a dancer and choreographer?
RD: Music and movement are my first inspirations when I am choreographing. Sometimes I will start with movement to see how abstract and unique I can make it, then put it to a song. Other times, the music leads me to create certain movements. The dancer(s) I work with also inspire me. The energy in the room and what the student is willing to try brings out some magical moments.
As a dancer, music is also key for me. It’s easy for me to really go for the dance if I am into the music. If I don’t quite connect with the song, I get inspired by my peers and feed off others’ energy while dancing. Getting to dance with another person is one of my favorite parts about being a performer. It’s a bond and chemistry you can’t share with anyone else.
LD: Let’s talk about your vitiligo – when did you first get vitiligo?
RD: I first noticed my vitiligo when I was going into 6th grade. It started with small patches on my eye and knee. It’s actually quite ironic, because as a brown Indian girl in 3rd grade, I remember trying on a yellow dress and telling myself I would look better if I had white skin. Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.
LD: How has vitiligo impacted your life, and how do you feel about it today?
RD: I go back and forth with this question. If you asked me before the pandemic, I was perfectly fine with having vitiligo. Growing up, everyone embraced me and I was never judged. That made it easier for me to accept my skin. Vitiligo made me feel unique, but not too different.
About a year ago though, it started to progress very quickly on my face and all over my body. I’m starting to experience people staring a lot more, getting sunburned, finding new spots every week, feeling like I don’t look like myself, and not being as comfortable without makeup. It is a struggle at times. At the same time, I would love to help others and inspire them to feel comfortable and that helps me not mind my skin as much.
LD: As a performing art, dance has a bit of “traditional beauty” tied to it. Have you ever felt that in your career as a dancer?
RD: I have always wondered if I will not be cast because of my vitiligo. I like to believe that it hasn’t affected my career, but will never know if it is a factor or not. I understand that our industry is partially about appearance. For shows, I only cover my face and sometimes my ears with makeup. When I dance, I immerse myself in my craft and don’t think about it. The only time I do notice it is when I perform at a school as we are very close to the kids where you can hear comments. In this environment, I don’t get a chance to explain what I have to the kids. My only opportunity to educate children is when I am teaching.
LD: How do you talk to the kids in your dance classes about your vitiligo? And does it come up often?
RD: Since I teach the same kids for the whole year, we talk about it during our first class together. Usually I’ll start off with introducing myself because I know they are thinking about it and some are shy to ask. This year, before I could even say my name, I had a younger child ask. After that, it doesn’t come up – it’s a part of me and they accept it. It only comes up if I don’t know a child. One time, we had just finished our recital and I was talking to a parent when a child I didn’t know touched my skin and said, “Ooo pretty.” It was very sweet and made me feel happy inside.
LD: Last year, on World Vitiligo Day, you posted on Instagram with the caption, “We must learn to embrace what’s different about us and realize how powerful that can be.” What has your journey been like learning the power of difference in your own life?
RD: It was easier to be confident when I didn’t have vitiligo – and when I had less of it. As it spreads, I can’t help but occasionally lose that confidence. Even though I struggle from time to time, I honestly feel comfortable in my skin today. It is being celebrated in many ways and I am happy to be part of things like Living Dappled. I don’t feel like my vitiligo is a negative thing, but rather a positive thing for others who might need some inspiration along their journey.
LD: What advice do you have for other women with vitiligo?
RD: Be yourself. Live your life as you normally would. Don’t let it hold you back from anything.
Erika Page is the Founder and Editor of Living Dappled. After getting vitiligo at the age of seven, she lost 100% of her pigment to the condition and today lives with universal vitiligo.