Why I Dance: Sarah Van Patten

April 26, 2011

Sarah Van Patten is a great dramatic dance actress. She plunges into roles, bringing nuance and depth to her characters, using lush phrasing to draw out the emotion of the music. And when she pulls off one of her seemingly supernatural balances, you realize the many layers of talent she brings to the stage.

Van Patten’s star rose swiftly after she joined Royal Danish Ballet as a teenage apprentice. Only months into her contract, she was cast as the lead in John Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet and soon after was awarded Denmark’s New Talent Prize. But the Boston native was eager to return to the U.S., and at 17 she accepted Helgi Tomasson’s offer to join San Francisco Ballet as a soloist. A principal at SFB since 2007, she’s performed lead roles in works by Balanchine, Robbins, Wheeldon, Tomasson, and Possokhov. In January she debuted as the lead in Tomasson’s


I dance today because it is so deeply a part of me that I have little choice. But it wasn’t always that way.


When I began dancing at age 6, it was one of my many after-school activities. I savored the physical challenge and the grace, and eventually chose to spend more time on dance and less on my other activities.


After a few years, I imagined myself as a horse with blinders, focused only on the task at hand. Without those blinders, I worried I would get distracted. I was lucky to have the support of my family. My mother had been a dancer and my father was a musician, so they understood my commitment. I also had an amazing teacher, Jackie Cronsberg, who worked with me one-on-one, guiding me to what I needed next. I thrived on this challenge and felt safe in this environment. The ballet studio was my second home.


But then, life happens. And like a horse ready for the races, my blinders came off. When I reached 12 or 13, school required more time and I socialized more with my dancer friends. I was excused from gym class and after-school sports so I could do homework, since ballet took up most of my time. This is when I started feeling really different from my school friends. I wasn’t into school dances or social clubs—all I wanted was to dance. Striking the right balance wasn’t something I could plan, but rather, it was something I felt.


I joined the Royal Danish Ballet when I was 15. At first, I felt detached and alone. Much of my support system was gone—literally an ocean away. It was in Copenhagen that I first faced the difficulties of living all on my own. It was through the choices I made then, when no one was watching, that my life as a professional dancer was cast. This was my moment of truth: Would I get up for company class? Stay for an extra rehearsal? Eat right? Do my exercises? Get enough sleep? Without Jackie and my family I had to rely on myself. I spent my days rehearsing and performing but had to figure out how to continue to practice and learn.


After two years, I joined San Francisco Ballet as a soloist, and six years later became a principal. I found out that it never gets easier, and that practice and learning never stop. Every day I start at the barre, trying to perfect my tendus. I keep on these blinders for the timeless moments that I have onstage. The show is a great experience, but the longer I dance, the more I enjoy the work in the studio. There are moments when it feels as if I’m experiencing something greater than myself.


I’ve gone back to school in recent years to widen my horizons, and I feel even more fulfilled and driven to dance. I’m looking to explore each role I am given and enjoy the ride wherever it brings me. At some point, every dancer battles with “It’s just not good enough yet,” so it’s easy to become discouraged. But I’ve let go of worrying about failure.


The performance is only one of the many opportunities presented to a professional dancer. I dance for the relationships I build onstage and off. I dance for the creative process and the love of the music that I get to be lost in. 


Sarah Van Patten in Tomasson’s
Giselle. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB