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By Julie Diana
With her long neck, sweet face, and elegant bearing, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Julie Diana is the Audrey Hepburn of ballet. Articulate and generous in contemporary roles, she can be positively dreamy in classical ones. Diana discovered ballet at age 7 at the New Jersey Ballet. At 12, she began training at the School of American Ballet and joined San Francisco Ballet at 16. In 2004 she moved to Philadelphia, where she and boyfriend Zachary Hench joined PAB as principals (see “The Wings of the Dove,” Aug. 2006). The next year, after a performance of Romeo and Juliet in which Diana and Hench had danced the leads, he proposed to her onstage. This spring Diana, who earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008, looks forward to dancing Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated, and a reprisal of Romeo and Juliet with her husband.
I initially wanted to be an Olympic champion in women’s gymnastics, winning gold medals and scoring perfect 10s by age 16. This dream, however, was not meant to be. At 7, I had a tremendous fear of heights and my body was already too long and loose for compact tumbling. My gymnastics coach, wisely, nudged me in a different direction—she encouraged me to try ballet.
I fell in love. Was it the music, the discipline, the outfit, or the combination of structure and expressive movement? I don’t know. But I readily gave up the bars at the gym and practically attached myself to a barre in the studio.
Before now, I’ve never articulated my reasons for dancing. I’ve been asked where I dance, how long I’ve danced, and what roles I want to dance…but never why I dance. So as I search for the words to describe my motivation, I realize that there is no simple answer. My reasons seem to be varied and predictable, constant yet changing.
I dance to act. Ballet enables me to be the things I am not, or maybe it allows me to express aspects of myself that I would not otherwise acknowledge. I dance to travel, to go places that I would not otherwise have the opportunity to see. I dance for those rare moments when everything comes together, when my body and mind cease to conflict and when I am absolutely present, when the steps just happen and I inhabit the music, when I don’t have to think because the dance has taken over.
I do not dance to be competitive (this might seem strange coming from someone who wanted to go to the Olympics). Instead I am driven by the desire to constantly improve myself, to strengthen my weaknesses, and to disguise my unchangeable flaws. Dance presents me with an endless set of challenges from which I can pick and choose on a daily basis. There is always another goal to achieve.
In years past I would strive for unattainable perfection, driving myself crazy with self-criticism. Today, my approach to dancing is more relaxed. I still aim for excellence, but I am even more determined to enjoy the artistic process and let myself feel fulfilled. It was after the birth of my daughter, Riley, that I rediscovered the simple joys of dance.
I perform for her around the house, in the studio, and onstage—anything to make her smile! At just a year old, she keeps me grounded and enables me to maintain a healthy perspective. She makes me appreciate the more practical benefits of my job that I used to take for granted, such as good health insurance and a steady salary. And I can see the essence of ballet through her young eyes. I am reminded of its transformative power, that it is a stimulating, emotional, and engaging art capable of moving both body and soul.
Dance is more than my profession; it is an integral part of my life. It has shaped and influenced my identity, but it does not define me. I dance because I love the way it blurs the line between fantasy and reality. I dance because I am able to partner with my husband. I dance because it is a wonderful way to spend the workday. I dance because, from age 7, it’s the life I chose. My professional ballet career is my Olympic gold medal and I would not trade it for anything.
Photo of Julie Diana and Zachary Hench in La Sylphide by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Diana.