How Failure and Risk Helps Me Succeed

A few months ago, when I walked into the advanced ballet class at Alaska Dance Theatre on a warm summer afternoon, I am pretty positive that I caught a few of the kids off guard. I am far from an easy instructor. In fact, I can initially come off a bit harsh in my teaching methods. I'm no bullshit and I will tell a student exactly what I saw. If I truly think they did well or if I have seen marked improvement, I will tell them. But I don't really care to coddle students, patting their backs with comfort, or telling them that it is OK and maybe they'll get it next time. At the time, there wasn't much room for nonsense, anyway, because I wasn't even sure how long these kids would get to have me as their instructor. After what was probably a shockingly difficult barre that required exact precision or a restart to the beginning, I stood in front of the class and told them this. "I want you to fail in my class. Ballet class isn't about succeeding. It's about trying the same step incorrectly multiple ways until you find what works for you. Trip, fall, hold your leg until it is shaking with exhaustion. The studio isn't a place to constantly succeed. It is a place to fail, so that you can ultimately become successful." I don't remember if an instructor ever put it to me this way, but perhaps I feel this way because this is how I live my life outside of the studio.

Attempting to get a good shot as the sunrises over Masada & the Dead Sea in Israel
I've been dancing my whole life, but I didn't fall in love with ballet until I was 15 years old. I was a jazz competition kid who just happened to get bit by the ballet bug while working with choreographer and former New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre principal Robert Lafosse. Once I fell in love with ballet, there was no stopping me from achieving a career. With that said, there were countless times that I was told to give up my ballet dreams and head in the direction where I excelled, jazz and musical theatre. Each time I was given that talk, sometimes from the people I most respected, it pushed me to work harder. After finally succeeding at getting into Houston Ballet's year-round program, I probably took the first major risk of my career. After accepting my offer to attend and an August summer intensive with ABT, I came home with three days to pack and head to Texas. As I tried to mentally prepare for a move that I had been waiting over a year to do (I was accepted the year prior, but my mom wouldn't let me go), I slowly began to feel that I shouldn't isolate myself in the middle of the country during the last year or two of my training. I begged my mom to let me risk this opportunity and we drove to New York City to audition for the School of American Ballet year-round program. We drove to Lincoln Center, I auditioned, and the next day I got my results directly from the horses mouth. "No. The notes say, generally poor technique and extremely large quadriceps. Goodbye." I was beside myself!

After this crushing failure, I could have easily jumped on that flight and began training. But I just couldn't bring myself to leave. One day later, we drove three hours south to the Kirov Academy of Ballet. After a private audition, the late director stated in broken English, "Very slow year for boys. One third scholarship." This was far from my full ride to the Houston Ballet Academy and way out of the financial abilities of my family, but we were able to get a sponsor for my first month in the academy. As I headed down to the Kirov, I knew that I had to get greater sponsorship to continue my training at the school, but I felt hopeful that I was still close enough to New York City to feel connected to the center of the dance world. Then, two days later, September 11th happened, my sponsor froze their assets and I was left with an impossibility to continue my training. After the school graciously allowed me to remain for the first two months, they eventually decided to put me on full scholarship and I finished out my year of training.

At the end of my time at the Kirov, I had obtained a corps de ballet contract with Colorado Ballet. While I was ecstatic to begin my career as a professional. I had also been accepted to the School of American Ballet on full scholarship for their summer intensive. SAB was my dream and it had eluded me until this point. Seeing four students who trained at SAB perform in the Nutcracker that Robert Lafosse had choreographed was the defining inspiration that changed the trajectory of my career. I knew that I had to take this summer opportunity to see if a year-round option opened up. If this happened, I was willing to delay my career to live my dream. I called SAB and asked if they were considering me for the year-round program. They told me to take the job with Colorado Ballet because they couldn't promise me anything. So, I excitedly, yet reluctantly, signed my contract and started looking for a place to live in Denver.

A few months later, I arrived in Lincoln Center to finally realize a 5-week version of my dream. After three amazing days working with teachers I had only read about in Dance Magazine, I was pulled into a conference room along with one other classmate. There I was with one of my peers being the first two dancers asked to stay for this world-famous year-round program. I was committed to Denver, but my dream had just arrived. There was no way I could turn down this opportunity, even though it meant I had to train for another year, as well as destroy a very positive connection in the dance world. I promptly called up the director of Colorado Ballet and profusely apologized as I explained that I had to follow my dream. That next year at SAB changed my life as a dancer.

SAB workshops 2003 (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
One ironic part of my path is that turning down Houston Ballet Academy to train at two other schools only led me to get a job dancing with Houston Ballet. I had an interesting year working as one of Stanton Welch's first hires as an Artistic Director. At contract time, Stanton doesn't typically offer re-engagement to any apprentice across the board. AGMA states that dancers can only spend one year with the company as an apprentice, so they either need to be promoted to corps or let go. Typically, the director waits to see amongst the corps who will stay or leave and, only then, starts to promote the apprentices into the corps. When we all were"let go," I didn't feel comfortable waiting around to find out if I would get hired or not. I quickly obtained a contract with Pacific Northwest Ballet and Boston Ballet and signed with PNB. I still wonder to this day if I would have been offered a corps contract, but I was ready to move on to a more positive environment in a more metropolitan city.

My time at PNB has been well-documented in this blog. It had it's mix of highs and lows. While I was secure in my position and well-respected as a union delegate, I was itching to experience something new. I risked all of this security and seniority to try my hand at working with a fledgling, start-up company. After a great first few months, I injured myself and the company didn't support me. I was eventually fired by that company, which I consider one of my greatest failures. It wasn't so great only because I had moved my life to Philadelphia, but more so because I had given up so much to take such a huge risk.

Taking risks daily
While I gave up all of my security and lifestyle to expand my reach and possibilities as an artist, I was now stuck in Philadelphia, burgeoning on poverty, and injured. In these dark circumstances, I had to find a way to survive. This brought me into freelancing, choreographing, writing, teaching, and traveling. If I hadn't experienced the failure that I did, I don't know if I would ever have traveled the country to dance, written articles that have been published in periodicals, been featured in dance publications, or directed an organization 4,000 miles away from home. If I had stayed at PNB, I would probably be stuck in similar circumstances that I was in nearly four years ago.

As I begin to close the chapter on my most recent risk-taking failure, I am curious where life will lead me next. I took a chance to do something that I wasn't sure if it would be a great or poor decision. While I could look at the whole experience as an utter failure, what I am realizing is that my life is much like a dance studio. I spend each day of my life exploring different ways of experiencing this wild career and testing out ways of achieving my best through trial-and-error, or failure. Some things have worked out perfectly on the first try and some things have failed immediately. But in the end, the knowledge that I have gained and the growth I have had will only make my future experiences more successful. Failure can have such a negative connotation in our culture. But I just don't really see it that way. It takes practicing a pirouette ten-thousand times to finally achieve the perfect one. And, sometimes, right after that perfect pirouette, you fall hard on your ass, get back up, and try to make it perfect again.

My greatest success at Alaska Dance Theatre


  1. Your quote encouraging students to have the courage to fail in ballet if it meant that they did so because they were tying different ideas out in class is exactly what I needed to hear at this present moment in my dance education. Thank you. :)

  2. It's very true. A lot of instructors don't tell you that they give you specific combinations, not to succeed, but to fail. You must fail a handful of times to succeed, especially in ballet.