Why I Dance: Jonathan Porretta

Porretta in Molissa Fenley's State of Darkness. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

As clichéd as it sounds, asking me why I dance is like asking a fish why he swims or a bird why he flies. I dance because I'm meant to. It's who I am. Even as a little boy in New Jersey, whenever adults would ask me what I wanted “to be" when I grew up, I'd answer, “I wanna be a dancer!"

I'll never forget the first time I was shown a video of Mikhail Baryshnikov. My mouth dropped open and my eyes widened. I got closer to the television screen like a moth to a flame. I couldn't believe what I was seeing: His magnificent jumps, astounding turns and artistry.

For me, Baryshnikov was a god. Growing up in a town where a boy like me wasn't quite the norm, having him as my role model reassured me that what I wanted to do in life and who I wanted to be could really be achieved—there were other people out there just like me.

Nine years later, I got to take ballet classes from him at the School of American Ballet, where I trained. I was so nervous and excited. I couldn't believe I was going to meet him! The lessons he taught me in those few classes have lasted me throughout my entire career, right down to the way I hold the barre when facing it, always with wrists crossed to keep myself squared. I even teach this to students now. And I always say, “Baryshnikov taught me this."

To this day Baryshnikov is still my hero. He represents more than just stellar talent and artistry; to me he is freedom. Freedom to be who you are and fight for what you want. The stage is where I truly feel the happiest and most comfortable with myself. Even on days when I'm exhausted and sore, I feel so lucky that I have been given the gift to do what I love every day of my life.

It's hard to compare the feeling you get after hitting your last pose in a ballet. That moment of realizing what you've just accomplished. Not every ballet is as rewarding as others, but to be in front of a crowded theater, giving the audience everything you've got and feeling them feeding you their energy back—I live for those moments when everything comes together onstage.

It's those moments that I savor. Dance is and will always be my first true love.

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