5 perspectives on the life of a professional ballet dancer

What is it like to be a dancer? What do we strive for? What do we fear?

In my previous article, I wrote about my perspective of the pursuit of perfection in a ballet dancer’s life, and about what that might entail. I got a great response from all of you, but it made me wonder: “How would others describe their motivation for what they do? What do they see as their ultimate goal in being a dancer, and what might be some of their personal obstacles in the way of progressing towards that goal?”

So I decided to reach out to several friends of mine – each in different places in their life, different stages of their dancing career, and different kinds of ballet companies – to get an idea of just how our goals and obstacles in this dancing life might differ, and to see how they might compare.

Turns out there’s plenty of common ground in their answers. Let’s meet my contributors:

Stephan Bourgond: Danced with Hamburg Ballet for a few years, later joined Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, and has been dancing as a principal here now for several years. I met Steph here in Monaco and he’s been a steady force here, challenging my assumptions about this world and providing support and friendship along the way.

Julia Rowe: Grew up training at CPYB, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. Joined Oregon Ballet Theatre (and was promoted to soloist) at the same time as me, and dances currently with the San Francisco Ballet. Has been profiled by another ballet blog, commemorating the hard work and little recognition one gets for being a corps dancer, and she deserves it. She’s always impressed me with her ultra-strong technique and speedy, precise movements.

Javier Ubell: Trained at SAB, the School of American Ballet. Also joined Oregon Ballet Theater (and was promoted to soloist!) at the same time as Julia and I, and subsequently took a big jump (and Javi is well known for his hops) across the Atlantic to dance for a modern company based in Munich called Gärtnerplatz. Javi has a unique perspective because of his switch from super-classical to super-modern; a transition that took some serious adaptation.

Javier, Julia, and I, back in the day.

Steven Houser: Steven, like me, grew up in Portland. He trained at a different school but eventually joined Oregon Ballet Theatre before me, was promoted to soloist, and later left to join Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

afterlight10Kirsten Evans: Kirsten is a new friend. I discovered her website when I was first searching for other ballet blogs out there to see what other professional dancers were writing about, and I appreciated the little well-designed space she’d made for herself on the internet, as well as her writing. If you want another perspective on what it’s like to be a dancer, go check out her blog. She grew up in Maryland and is currently finishing her sixth season with Festival Ballet Providence, in Rhode Island.

As you may have noticed, everyone I asked to be a part of this post came from the US or Canada, so these views may represent a North American outlook on dance. However, I’m not sure how much this might differ from other European, or Asian conceptions of dance pursuits. Three of us five Americans do, in any case, now live in Europe.

So, with that in mind…

Why do we dance?

We all dance for different reasons, or so I assumed. But as I was reading their answers side by side I saw a similarity in each’s responses. See if you can find any patterns here.

I asked each dancer “What do you see as your ultimate goal as a dancer?”. Here are their responses:

Stephan Bourgond: I think there is something deep inside me that is trying to come out, and dance has offered me an outlet. I can put love and pain and happiness and disappointment and jealousy and hope and trust and sadness and so many other things into it. And no matter how good or bad those feelings are, they can be filtered through movement and offered to anyone who cares to watch. I guess, with that in mind, my ultimate goal as a dancer is to find myself.

Photo: Alice Blangero – choreography: Pontus Lidberg

Julia Rowe: My ultimate goal as a dancer is to find a way to express my perspective on life in a way that an audience can relate to. I want to share who I am with others in the hope that both parties will get something out of it.

Julia Rowe and Sofiane Sylve in Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016 (© Erik Tomasson)

Javier Ubell: My ultimate goal for dance is understanding the deeper connections between myself and the other dancers around me. After moving into a more modern/contemporary company from a neo-classical ballet company, my relationship to dance and myself in dance has changed greatly. What was important to me when I was in a classical ballet company was, “Did I hit that position correctly?” or “Did I do four turns instead of three?”  I was never concerned with what was happening in between all of this. Now, dancing in a more contemporary company, my goal is explaining how I get from point A to point B. The goal is not moving from one position to the other, but the million different positions that happen throughout. And the different choices that are made amongst us are truly the most beautiful things about dance.

Steven Houser: My ultimate goal is to connect by communicating something of what it is to be human. Whether it’s something as simple as “this is how this music makes me feel” or as complex as an emotion, I want to help an audience connect to that something within themselves so that there is a resonance that exists even after the performance is over. I think that is the responsibility of the arts in general – to help people connect to their own humanity.

Kirsten Evans: I would say my ultimate goal as a dancer is to connect: to connect with the steps, with the audience, with my partner, my corps, and myself.  A connection with the steps may not always come naturally, but the beautiful thing about dancing is it is just like life: Each step is what you make it.  In the end, no matter who created the movement, it is to be executed by your body.  When you perform, whether you are standing in a line of swans or on your head center stage, the moment is unequivocally yours to give.  This is where I hope, each performance, to connect with myself.  To recognize the wonder of the moment, regardless of how my performance turns out technically.  Of course, this is where self-criticism tends to hinder, but if I could overcome that, if I could harness the paramount of simply connecting, I would find bliss.  If I could succeed in sharing that feeling with those beside me onstage and even just one person sitting in the audience, that would be the ultimate victory.


This is where I want to point out the use of words like connect, find, share, which you can find in each response. This may seem incredibly simple, but dancers want to connect with the world – to connect with themselves, with each other, and with the audience. This is what makes any performance powerful: a clear embodiment of what’s happening inside the performer, and the observer’s connection with them by understanding and feeling exactly that. This is a matter of empathy.

So… what gets in the way of that connection?

What are the obstacles?

Stephan Bourgond: I think the biggest obstacle to self-improvement for me would be recognizing the moment when self-criticism goes from being productive to being hurtful. We are trained to analyse ourselves and our work, but there’s sometimes a moment when I become overly analytical and struggle with pushing through, or giving up and accepting “that’s just the way I am” or “I just can’t do that.”

Julia Rowe: My biggest obstacle for self-improvement: I tend to be my own worst critic. Sometimes this tendency helps motivate me to push towards that impossible ideal of perfection. I see so many areas for improvement and I want to get to work on all of them right away. When it gets dangerous for me is when I become overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy that stem from my harsh self-critique, especially when I feel like I might not have the tools or the capacity to improve. This fear puts me in a place where I minimize risk-taking to the point where it inhibits my artistic growth.

She doesn’t look like she’s minimizing her risk-taking here. Julia Rowe and Joseph Walsh in Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016 (© Erik Tomasson)

Javier Ubell: The biggest obstacle for me right now as a dancer is finding the relationship between myself and the different creative processes. For me, dance is all about relationships, and if the process to find these relationships doesn’t find me or if I don’t find it, I have a hard time finding the means to explore myself and the others around me. I think the self-improvement part of this obstacle is to remind myself that even when I’m in a process that doesn’t function in a way that I find suitable for me, I have the choice to fight it or go with it. Fighting it brings nothing positive to the creation process and maybe going with it will bring out something untapped in my dancing.

photo: Marie Laure Briane – choreography: Russell Lepley

Steven Houser: I think my biggest obstacle to self-improvement is a fear of failure, or of not looking like the dancer I think others think I should look like based on my age and experience. I will rarely try a step I feel uncomfortable with or a correction that doesn’t fit in with what I think I “know” to be “true” about ballet, for fear that if I don’t produce a quality result people will think I’m slipping. I often end up pushing myself only in ways that I understand and feel like I can reasonably excel at, but without fully stepping outside of my comfort zone.

Photo: Connie Flachs

Kirsten Evans: My biggest obstacle to improving as a dancer has been overcoming harsh self-criticism.  While the ability to impartially evaluate one’s weaknesses is a crucial skill for any successful dancer, there is also a fine line between constructive analysis and pure negativity.  No one is perfect.  In the pursuit of technical precision, this fact can be hard for me to hold on to.  Daily examination of my own flaws coupled with the intense emotional manifestation that is dancing tends to take quite the toll on my self-esteem.  It is still a work in progress, but I have found most breakthroughs in the rehearsals where freedom of movement and the exploration of artistry were my main focus.  It’s important for me to take my eyes off the mirror and remember that when it comes to performing, what’s most important is speaking to the audience.

The similarity between the answers to this question are exceedingly clear: we are tough on ourselves. And often too much so.

In some ways, this is an admirable quality. We’re constantly looking for something better within ourselves, and this drives us to improve. But there’s a point where that criticism becomes a hinderance, and instead of using our critical eye to improve, we simply wallow in our perceived inadequacy.

I don’t believe this to be a genetic issue. If this is true, then it has to do with our training.

So I’m curious: Is this a necessary by-product of our perfectionist pursuit? Or are there other philosophical skills that could be taught along the way that might lead to a healthy outlook while maintaining the strong dancer work ethic? Is it possible to create a class that focuses on teaching us how to use self-criticism as a tool for positivity, not negativity?

Perhaps they’re out there, but I’ve never encountered one. (Please tell me if you know of any examples I could explore, even if it’s outside of dance. This seems like something that should exist.)

So there you have it. Five different people each with their distinct personalities (and very different movement qualities), yet there are common threads throughout. I really didn’t know what to expect when I set out to hear these different perspectives, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We’re all human, after all.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small taste of the lives of five very different dancers – don’t hesitate to scroll down and hit that follow button 🙂 A big shout out to each of the five included here for taking the time to share even more of themselves by writing, something that we dancers very rarely have to do.

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