Better Late Than Never: Six Pros on Starting Later in Life

July 19, 2007

Late bloomers are uncommon in the dance world, but they are not as rare as one might think. Martha Graham, Rudolf Nureyev, and José Limón all started training in their teens or later. Here on earth, American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland started training at 13, and modern dancer Holley Farmer began at 16. David Zurak, Gordon Peirce Schmidt, Keith Sabado, and Jennifer Macavinta, all in major companies, started late, too.

Often late starters excel in other physical forms like gymnastics or martial arts before they fall in love with dance. But not always. Sometimes the passion for dance seems to strike out of the blue. So what are the characteristics that enable adult beginners to succeed against all odds? Certainly, natural ability goes a long way. But you also need gobs of commitment, discipline, focus—and luck.

David Zurak, a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, took his first dance class when he was 23. Before then, he was a self-proclaimed “bookworm.” His degree in electrical engineering from McMaster University in Ontario was about as far removed from dance as one could get. In college, something happened that changed his life: He saw a dance performance by Peggy Baker—his first exposure to theater of any kind—and experienced something “very profound.”

After graduation, Zurak took as many classes as he could in ballet, modern, and jazz. He attended summer intensives and ballet workshops and apprenticed at Banff Festival Ballet. Each time he entered a new setting, directors saw his talent—enough to give him a scholarship with the Merce Cunningham school, a temporary place in the corps of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, and a position with Lucinda Childs Dance Company.

For Zurak, he feels like he’s come full circle. “I had started my training with Graham technique at Toronto Dance Theatre, and now I’m in the Graham company. Everything I’ve done has allowed me to be here.” He set realistic goals and stayed focused on them. “When I first started training, as a tall man, I could have gotten work in dance anywhere,” he said. “But I saw a lot of men dancers who had been hired too soon. So, I told myself, ‘You can wait.’ Working is not enough—you have to do work you believe in.”

For Gordon Peirce Schmidt, artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet, succeeding as a late starter has been a matter of “following your path and seeing where it takes you.” Schmidt was a champion gymnast in high school. “I always wanted to dance,” he says. “But, as a teen, I thought it was too late, so I didn’t pursue it.”

Schmidt attended Louisiana State University on a gymnastics scholarship, and in his sophomore year accompanied a friend to dance class with the understanding that ballet would help his gymnastics. It took only a few classes before he decided to be a ballet dancer. “What I remember most is that I didn’t want to lose the opportunity,” says Schmidt. “I told myself, ‘You have one life to lead; if you feel that strongly about something you should pursue it.’ ” He trained with Phoebe Brantley in Baton Rouge and won a scholarship at the Ellis-DuBoulay Studio in Chicago. Later he performed with Maryland Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Chicago Ballet, and was the first American to receive a full-time contract with the Vienna State Opera Ballet.

Schmidt, who has always been attracted to the creative process, became resident choreographer for Ballet Chicago, and has since choreographed over 40 ballets for Grand Rapids Ballet. He occasionally performs character roles, including the role of the stepmother in his

Some late starters seek somatic disciplines to supplement their training. Keith Sabado, who danced with Mark Morris for 10 years and then with White Oak Dance Project, discovered Pilates early on. “Pilates helped me deal with physical problems that came about due to my accelerated course of dance training and helped me correct imbalances in my body.”

Sabado took his first dance class in college, changing his studies from pre-med to dance. “I was always an adept social dancer,” says Sabado. “But when I started doing dance movement, it made so much more sense to me as a language. Still, taking the multiple technique classes was difficult—I’d be in beginning and advanced classes at the same time.”

Sabado studied in New York, gravitating to teachers with a history—May O’Donnell, Pauline Koner, Pearl Lang, Martha Graham. “I wanted to investigate what came before me, before jumping into something more contemporary,” he says. In the last two years, Sabado has performed with Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre, PARADIGM, Johannes Wieland, and Richard Daniels. “My desire to understand movement and not let style get in the way has allowed me to find my place in the dance world,” says Sabado. “It’s how I could dance for Mark for so long, and end up as a rehearsal director for White Oak.” Sabado, now 50, teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, the 92nd Street Y, Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Jennifer Macavinta, of Pilobolus Dance Theatre, took her first dance class as a physical therapy major at California State University, Long Beach. Before then, she had competed in drill teams and in Tae Kwon Do tournaments in high school. “A lot of girls had technique, but I just had a lot of heart,” says Macavinta. “In college, I took as many dance classes as I could to keep up with everyone else. There’s something about ballet—the technique, the discipline, the grace. I wanted to conquer this fear of not measuring up, so I took a ton of classes.” Her big break came when someone who had seen her perform in New York mentioned her to Pilobolus. It was the “in” that she needed, and now she’s been one of two women in this small—but extremely busy—company of six for three years.

Holley Farmer, who recently won a Bessie award for her dancing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, was a gymnast growing up. She took her first ballet class at age 16 at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, and soon danced with Theatre Ballet of Canada and Oakland Ballet. Later, within a week of completing her MFA at the University of Washington, while the Cunningham company had a residency there, one of the dancers encouraged her to come to New York City. Shortly after making the move, she was hired as an understudy for the company.

“Nothing like this gets handed to you without a lot of hard work,” says Farmer, who has cross-trained in Pilates and Gyrotonics. “It’s true that I’ve always had natural ability, but imbedded in that are very specific challenges. One is injury prevention and another is maintaining the appetite for beauty, apace with the difficulty of the movement. I’ve been so lucky to fall in love with Merce’s work.”

American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland was 13 when she took her first ballet class. By the time she was 16, she was offered a contract with ABT’s Studio Company. At 17, she was asked to apprentice, and at 18 she joined the corps. How did she rise so quickly? “I was always athletic,” says Copeland. “A schoolteacher of mine told me I had the physique of a ballet dancer. So, I took a class, and the more I did it, the more I loved it.”

The hurdles she had to jump had little to do with physical challenges: “Everything came naturally to me—the flexibility, my pointe work, learning combinations. What was hard was having to give up so much to devote time to dance. I took a year off from school in the 10th grade so I could take dance classes six hours a day. I was making up for lost time.”

Copeland, who is beginning to receive notice from critics, has other goals in mind beyond her individual career. “I’m the only African American female in the company right now. I would love to open up doors for other African American ballet dancers.”

Clearly, the dance world is peopled mostly by those who started young. These stories show, however, that with motivation and focus, a lot of heart, a bit (or a lot) of luck, and a healthy and realistic attitude, it’s possible to bloom as a dancer—even if you start a little bit later than usual.

Gigi Berardi is the author of
Finding Balance: Fitness, Training, and Health for a Lifetime in Dance (Routledge Press). She took her first dance class at age 23.