Changing the Face of Ballet: Nashville Ballet's Kayla Rowser Speaks Out On Diversity

"It's not just about diversity racially; it is diversity in what you can do."
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In 2014, ballet is making itself known in more ways than one: From the announcement of Irina Dvorovenko, a former principal at American Ballet Theatre, starring in a new series on STARZ, to Misty Copeland appearing in an Under Armor campaign, to ballet making an appearance in the opening Olympic ceremonies, ballet's transition into the social media age is that of bona fide success. As the audience grows and stages begin to range from theaters to television screens and books, ballet is changing. Ballet is having a moment, a movement.

Kayla Rowser, of Nashville Ballet, is part of that movement.

Standing at a petite five-foot-two, Rowser's presence is that of power. In many ways, her story is that of quintessential ballerina success: Beginning her career in Georgia with solid ballet training, Rowser spent a season with Charleston Ballet Theatre before joining Nashville Ballet II, where she rose swiftly through the ranks, starting as an Apprentice in 2009 and becoming a company member in 2010.

From the outside looking in, Rowser is traditional standout, a luminous elegance to her dancing that makes it easy to see why she's become a face of ballet, gracing Dance Magazine's 25 to Watch in 2013, an honor given to only the most influential forces to be reckoned with in the ballet world. She has waltzed her way through acclaimed roles with Nashville Ballet, including Aurora in 2013's Sleeping Beauty and the title role in Firebird.

But now, Rowser is stepping into a much more atypical, but especially significant role: She is an active advocate for diversity in ballet, diversity that, as she says, includes "diversity in body types, diversity in movement quality, diversity in all types of things."

Rowser is quick to note that she sees herself as a dancer -- not necessarily an African American dancer. She does not view her race as an obstacle she must overcome, but does allow it to act as a catalyst for a broader conversation about a shift in ballet's culture. In order for ballet to keep up with it's changing audience, ballet better be ready to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, maintaining its otherworldly escapism but including the variety represented in the people buying tickets. That, Rowser believes, is key: "For it to be more relatable, you want to see all different types of body types, different lines, all different things on stage."

Rowser's activism means she's taking a hands-on stance in the diversity discussion, and will be opening the dialogue herself: On February 21st, Rowser will take the stage at School of Nashville Ballet Academy to talk about her career, her life, and diversity in dance. The talk, part of a lecture series offering students opportunities to hear from professionals about nutrition, education, and physical therapy, is free and open to the public, meaning Rowser's obvious passion for her subject can reach not just future ballerinas, but future ticket holders as well.

Long gone are the days of the ballerina stereotype. Today's dancers are taking their careers into their own hands and taking the ballet world by storm in the process, and Rowser is no exception. Her platform, in its entirety, is much larger than race, though that hovers at the center. Though Rowser is pointed about the fact that she never experienced anything exceptionally tragic related to her race throughout her career, she does admit that it tends to lurk in the back of her mind. She recalls dancing in Swan Lake and Giselle in the corps, and wondering whether her presence was distracting.

Dancers worry about seemingly minuscule details that the majority is blind to-the tilt of a head, the level of a gaze. Why should skin color or body type be added to the list? Rowser is eager to dispel the ideal of the one-size-fits-all dancer, saying: "There's not this cookie-cutter stereotype anymore of you have to be this many pounds, this height, and look a certain way. It's not just about diversity racially; it is diversity in what you can do."

More than anything, Rowser is a natural. She is a natural dancer, and a natural role model for aspiring dancers. She wants young dancers to know that whatever battle they may be facing, they too can break the mold and throw themselves into possibility. Whatever their movement style, whatever their race, whatever their body type, it seems that ballet is preparing to draw back the curtain and let them in. As more variety enjoys the performance, slowly but surely, ballet is welcoming more variety onstage to dance it. The fairytale seems to come full circle.

And standing at center stage are dancers like Kayla Rowser, artist, individual, revolutionary, redefining the face of ballet.

For more information on Kaya Rowser's free lecture, visit:

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