BY LIZ BRENT
This interview is part of Men Who Dance, an ongoing series that looks at the experiences of men in the field of dance.
My name is Juan Ruiz. I am 20 years old, and I’m currently training in the Lines Ballet BFA program at Dominican University where I’ll be a sophomore this upcoming year.
Liz Brent: How did you get started in dance?
Juan Ruiz: I was 17 years old in my junior year of high school. I was in the theater department for the first three years and I did lots of creative movement dance classes for actors. I’d ask the teacher, “What arm goes first?” and he would reply, “Any arm.” I thought to myself, “But I want to learn technique!” So I enrolled in ODC where I took beginning ballet with the little girls. I was literally the oldest one, but I managed to progressively move up through the different levels. My senior year of high school, I transferred over from the theater department into the dance department. First day of my senior year, I went up to the dance director, Elvia Marta, and said, “Take me into the dance department.” She responded, “But I’ve never seen you dance.” So I auditioned for the dance department in the placement classes for already accepted dance students. I was really intimidated and so eager to find out whether Elvia would take me in or not, but after auditions were over and results where up, Elvia told me she would take me in. I was very excited to hear the good news and ever since have continued dancing.
I didn’t know where I wanted to go to college, but I really wanted to train in ballet because it’s the base to every dance style. It is not my strongest style but I wanted to get the technique in my body. So I joined the ODC Dance Jam and spent a year there. Then I auditioned for the Lines ballet BFA program, at Dominican University where I am right now. The program there is really intense. There are lots of talented dancers from all over the US with strong technique, but they’ve all helped me grow as a dancer and human being.
LB: When did you know you wanted to pursue dance?
JR: I’ve always been very physical and played sports. Dancers work very hard and make movement look effortless. I remember watching a dance show at my arts school and thinking, I want to be one of them. That’s when I realized theater wasn’t giving me what I wanted. So I enrolled in my first ballet class.
LB: What was your family’s response to your interest in dance?
JR: They thought I was crazy. They asked me, “Is that even a real profession?” They thought it was unrealistic to pursue a career as a dancer. But I always kept true to myself. So I kept doing what I love most. I want to prove to them how professional dance can be, so I continued training and applying for different programs. My mom came to my first fall showcase this year at Lines and said, “You look really good. This is really professional.” So their thoughts have changed a little. They have been more supportive now.
LB: Did you feel like friends and other community members supported you?
JR: Definitely. ODC was one of the main places that helped me grow. They allowed me to make mistakes, and I was able to learn a lot about my body and myself though their creative process. I don’t know what they saw in me but I’m happy they took me in.
LB: What happens when you meet new people and you tell them you’re a dancer?
JR: It varies. Dancers are always very unique. The way they walk and are always in some sort of motion with elegance makes them stand out. I find myself going over choreography when I’m waiting for BART sometimes and I feel that people watch me thinking I’m weird. Some people are interested in what I’m doing and others look at me funny.
LB: What has it been like being one of the only guys in a dance class?
JR: When I was in the ODC Dance Jam I was the only guy, and someone once asked me what it was like to be the only guy, and I responded, “Actually the girls are a lot better than I am.” Girls have it a little more competitive then us guys because there are more of them in the dance world. But all the girls are always on their game, so they are a challenge.
LB: Have you had male dancer role models?
JR: In the ODC Commons, Brian Fisher has always guided me and has been a very supportive. Brian would always pick on me during class, but I liked it because he pushed me beyond my limits. He suggested me to move up to the level five contemporary advance class that former ODC Company member Daniel Santos taught. Daniel was very intense! He once challenged me to an across the floor combination against him. I was very intimidated but I gave it my best. He told me, “See what you just did? Do that every day.” He really motivated me to give it my all and he showed me that there’s always something to work on. I am very grateful I got the chance to learn from him and all the other ODC company members.
LB: Is there anything about being a male dancer that you wish was different?
JR: I think that times are changing and partnering doesn’t necessarily have to be male-female anymore. More people are open to male-male or female-female partnering. Or even female’s partnering the men now a days and I like that. I like breaking barriers.
LB: If you met a young boy who was interested in dance, what would you tell him?
JR: That’s tough, because I think every experience is different. But I’d tell him to stay true to himself and follow his dreams. To be passionate to his craft and remain interested because there is only one life to live. Life is too short, so if you want to dance, do it.