The A Plus Interview

The A Plus Interview: Nashville Ballet Star Kayla Rowser

"The path — every little step, even disappointments along the way — led me to where I needed to be in my career."

Standing at 5-foot-2 in tights custom-dyed to match her cinnamon skin, Kayla Rowser might not be the image that immediately comes to mind when people picture a prima ballerina. Well, she should. 

Rowser is not only every inch as talented as her taller and paler colleagues. She has succeeded not despite these qualities — but because of them.

Both on and off the stage, Rowser radiates poise, determination, and magnetism. As a role model for dancers of all shapes, sizes, and skin tones, she's an outspoken advocate for increased diversity in the arts. "It's so important for people to understand that diversity, as a whole, means inclusion," she tells A Plus in a phone interview. "The arts themselves are inclusive ... That's how we create inclusion by just opening people's eyes to something that's different from what they've experienced." 

She did this herself in 2014 as the first African American-ballerina to play Odette/Odile in Swan Lake for the Nashville Ballet. Since then, Rowser has most notably danced in a role "created on her" by Paul Vasterling, Nashville Ballet's artistic director — Layla in his world premiere of Layla and the Majnun. While currently working toward a degree in communications, she was also recognized for her artistic achievements and awarded the Individual Artist Fellowship by the Tennessee Arts Commission in 2015. 

Through the tireless work of artists such as Rowser and organizations like the Nashville Ballet, that message of inclusion knows no bounds. "Whether you go to an art gallery and you see paintings of people of all different ethnicities or you come to a ballet and [see] a Persian folktale that's told on stage... I think there's a really beautiful gift that ballet can bring to that [inclusion]," she adds. Every new opportunity a ballet company takes, whether it's showcasing dancers of color in lead roles and/or telling unexpected narratives on stage, may seem like just one small step for man. But, when all these individual steps add up, it becomes one grand jeté for mankind.  

"I hope more people will experience art and have their lives opened and transformed," Rowser says. Her own life has not only been opened and transformed by ballet, but forever inspired by it.  

Rowser in Nashville Ballet's "The Nutcracker." 
Rowser in Nashville Ballet's "The Nutcracker."  Karyn Photography 

1. You started dancing when your mom enrolled you in classes at age 4. What has kept you motivated to stick with ballet all these years?

I would definitely say I'm very blessed that I have had an incredibly strong support system in my family. I just come from an artistic family ... So [through] the dedication, the time commitment, and, you know, sometimes the tears and emotions that go along with ballet, I always had a family that gave me the space to feel those things and to feel frustration and to feel disappointment — but, without coddling in a way that was, "This is how you learn a valuable lesson and grow from it and continue to be just absolutely the best you can, regardless of what's going on around you." 

I've had a family support system that absolutely always keeps me going for sure ... As well as just trying to look at the long game and knowing that it's gonna be a really, really tough road to become a professional ballerina. I always had people telling me that at a young age and — for whatever reason — that didn't deter me at all from wanting to pursue it. So I guess I just really like a challenge.

David Bailey
David Bailey

2. What made ballet appeal to you over other dance genres?

For me, I think it's that [ballet is] so structured and the art form — there's so much about it. Even in classical ballet, there's so much room for growth and interpretation on how to do something, but there's still a guideline of what is correct with it. So it's finding ways to take artistic risks but also within the confines of classical ballet. 

I always loved how structured a ballet class was ... You're supposed to walk in and be quiet and really focus and listen to the teacher. Even at a young age, I really, really gravitated towards that. I was a pretty serious kid and a pretty shy kid, but once people got me to open up I was a total goofball. But I think something about ballet was a way that I could really express myself without having to speak.

3. You achieved one of your biggest goals in 2014 when you danced as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. How did achieving that dream make you feel?

There were a lot of layers with that. It was something I knew, as a kid, that I would love to do, but I really wasn't sure if I would ever make it to a level [where] I would be able to do that. I wasn't sure if I had it in me, and I wasn't sure if a director would look at me and see me as a swan queen ... So even just having the opportunity and to be in a company that saw me in that role was really, really, really rewarding, and just kind of showed me that the path — every little step, even disappointments along the way — led me to where I needed to be in my career, and I was very very grateful for that. 

But it was also just something that ... I saw photos of Lauren Anderson, who was a principal dancer with Houston Ballet. She was dancing when I was younger and [when I saw] photos of her as a swan queen, I really just connected to her. It was the first time I'd seen a dancer with darker skin before, and I thought, "Oh my gosh, I want to do that. I really want to do that." 

And so, to achieve that ... so very few dancers get to even perform those roles and then, on top of that, so very few African-American dancers and dancers of color get to perform those roles. It felt like this huge, huge, huge accomplishment on more levels than just a ballet role. It was something that really showed me that determination and staying positive and showing up and putting in the work every single day means that you can achieve what you want to achieve.

Kayla Rowser in Nashville Ballet's Swan Lake
Kayla Rowser in Nashville Ballet's Swan Lake Karyn Photography 

4. In achieving that goal and seeing all your hard work pay off, has that given you the confidence to go after other, even bigger dreams since then?

Oh absolutely ... It's human nature to have mental roadblocks and maybe a little bit of self-doubt, but I always go back to that moment [when] I didn't know if I could do that role, and I could. That, I feel, propels me even more, and it really creates a space for me to take risks because I did it. I took risks in that role, and they paid off. If I can do that, it just kind of made me feel like, "Wow." It proved to myself that I could do whatever I put my mind to. 

5. Since you mentioned Lauren Anderson, one of your role models, what do you admire about her? What have you learned from her that you've applied in your own life?

Just seeing her and seeing her zest for life, and her zest for ballet and how much she pushes all of her students, I keep up with her a lot. I've unfortunately never had to opportunity to meet her, [though] I would love to ... Following her career, and her social presence after she's retired from dancing and [seeing] her be vocal on what it means to have the career that she had, and how she's used that as a platform to inspire the youth of today really shows me that it's about so much more than just my career.  

Lauren Anderson's career at Houston Ballet was a huge reason that I believed I could dance. And so, now that I'm doing that, it's my job to instill that in other young students. Whether they want to dance or they just see someone on stage, and they're inspired by their personality or the fact that their body type isn't the perfect ballet body type, or that they had a similar upbringing or similar training, and that becomes a parallel for students to achieve any dream, even outside of ballet. I really feel the weight of being a role model. 

6. As a role model for many aspiring professional dancers, what’s your advice to someone who might not think they have what it takes to become a successful ballerina?

You have to find the best training that you can, and surround yourself with people who are going to be resourceful and help you find places where you would fit. That's something that I really had as a student, which I'm so grateful for, from my teachers and my parents. I think really creating a circle of people around you who are gonna lift you up and who are going to encourage you and to be support for you — not [just] on the good days, but on the tough days, too. 

Just knowing that it's gonna be a bumpy road, and it's gonna be frustrating, and it's a lot of toiling to get to the level of a professional dancer. However, [don't] compare your story to anyone else's ... You can look up to people, and really have role models and aspire to be whoever your favorite dancer is, but you have to craft your own story in order to be successful because that's what makes an artist. It's someone who takes their own experiences and their own story and puts it into their art form.

So I think absolutely trying to find your own voice as a dancer and not just trying to mimic that of those around you [is] a tough lesson to learn, but I think it's gonna be what makes you stand out at an audition. It's gonna be what makes you stand out on stage. Essentially, it's gonna open doors for you so that directors see you. Their eyes are drawn to you before they're drawn to someone else. 

7. Was there ever a time when you thought you wouldn’t achieve a goal or dream of yours? What did you tell yourself to keep going and not give up?

I think that's sort of the beauty of this career (and by career, I even mean your student career as well) is the ups and downs. If you don't have those days of everything not going exactly how you want ... when things go really, really well, you don't appreciate them as much and you don't take as much away from them. 

Even on those days when you're really down on yourself and you feel like, "That wasn't perfect. I know I can do better," you have to use that to drive you to be better, instead of letting yourself get defeated. Part of the beauty of ballet is you're gonna try something ten times, and it's not gonna be perfect nine out of the ten. It's probably not gonna be perfect ten out of the ten. Each time, it's gonna be a little bit different, but you have to find that ground of confidence and just kind of unwavering strength, knowing that, "I can do this, and if it doesn't go well, I'm gonna fix it for the next time." 

I think learning from mistakes is so important in a ballet career — and also asking for help. If you're struggling with something and you see a fellow dancer in your dance studio is really really good at [that] ... ask them what they think and see if there's something that translates for you. Dancers in our company do that all the time.

8. What obstacles have you had to confront in your career and what did you do to overcome them?

I can think of a few off the top of my head. The first one is that I am 5-foot-2 — and that's pretty short for a ballet dancer. Growing up, I was always the shortest in my classes. Even as I started doing bigger roles as a student, I was always really, really short compared to everybody else. And ... so that was something my teachers, all throughout growing up, kind of mentioned: "You have to dance bigger than you are. You can't dance like you're the shortest girl in the class. You have to dance, and take up space, and move just as big as the girl who's six inches taller than you." That was something I learned how to do in my training in order to really make the most of my 5-foot-2 stature so I could look bigger on stage. That was definitely an obstacle ... I'm fortunate enough that my teachers really, from a young age, saw talent in me, and thought, "OK, this is gonna be a hurdle for her." 

Another big thing has been that I am African-American, and it hasn't been a huge hurdle, but there are places where I would audition and get a little bit of feedback of "We just don't think you have the right look" and things along those lines. So when I found Nashville Ballet, they loved me for my dancing and wanted to give me opportunities, and let me grow and grow and grow over the years. This is my tenth season here, and it's never been an issue. So I think you really have to just find those places that are gonna be OK with the things that might not be textbook about you. For me, I'm short, and I don't look like your average dancer, and that's OK. I've found somewhere that has no issue with that and really embraces it, and actually loves it about me. 

So I would say those are two big obstacles, but again, I think you just have to have that quiet confidence and determination to know that you've been given all of the tools and ... present yourself in a way that people can't deny what you have to offer as a dancer. 

9. Overall, what have you learned about yourself — both your strengths and your vulnerabilities — through ballet?

I always knew I was a little bit of a perfectionist because I think you have to be in the ballet world, but I've learned that I perform better when I let that go just a little bit. I really like to be in control of things and ... you know, I do, I want things to be perfect. You aim for that. But I've learned that some of my best shows have been when something didn't go exactly as planned and something even more beautiful was created than what I would've aimed for before. 

Really those are the moments on stage that you remember and take away. Those are the ones when you see the humanity shine through in someone. So I think really being able to laugh at yourself a little bit when things don't go as planned, but also [I learned to] be able to enjoy that and see what life that brings to your dancing.

10. You’re a huge advocate for diversity in ballet. Besides setting multiple precedents with the Nashville Ballet as an African-American ballerina, how else do you think ballet can increase its diversity?

It has to feel accessible to everyone. I think for a long time ballet seemed really kind of "off limits" to a lot of groups of people, but that's not the case today. I think it's just a matter of ballet companies going out and really, truly trying to be more involved in their communities because the community in Nashville is growing so much. There are just shades of different races and ethnicities here in Nashville, and so you want your school to reflect that. That's something that Nashville Ballet has done very, very well. 

I think it's a case of reaching out to people and them just experiencing art, whether it's a ballet company go[ing] to an elementary school, and that's the first time a classroom of children see ballet. That may be their first introduction to it, and then they may realize they really like it and want to take classes. So I think it's a case of being vocal, being inclusive, as well as actually taking action to make sure that people can see that it's not just words. That you really are invested in every corner of the community. 

[And while] I just talked about students being introduced to dance, but I think seeing stories ... when an audience member sees themselves on stage, whether it's a man coming to a ballet and he sees the men of the company lifting women and seeing that really amazing strength, [he] identifies with that. Or there's a Black woman in the audience who comes and may see herself in me on stage. Or there's someone who wanted to dance growing up but someone always told them "Oh, you're too short," and they see a dancer on stage that looks like them. In any way, if someone can see themselves on stage, they're going to be more invested and more interested and more likely to want to come back and support it. So I think it's really important that the stories that are told are stories from all different cultural backgrounds.

Strayer University offers in-demand subject areas, flexible scheduling and over 120 years of making it possible. Winter classes online and on-campus start January 3rd. Possible starts now at Strayer.edu.

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