AvaRose Dillon is a trainee at Texas Ballet Theater and is pursuing an online degree through Texas Tech in hopes of making dance a more inclusive space.
AvaRose Dillon always felt she could express herself through ballet. But as her dance career evolved, she realized other dancers struggled to feel understood or represented.
“I've been blessed to dance in healthy environments with people who support me. However, not all dancers have that experience,” AvaRose said.
Whether it's someone's gender, body type or the color of their skin, many dancers are spinning themselves ragged to keep up with the aesthetic of ballet – an aesthetic that's outdated.
After her own dance career, AvaRose plans to work as a manager or artistic director at a large ballet company. She wants dance to not only have a positive impact on the world, but on the dancers themselves. That's why she enrolled as an online student in Texas Tech University's College of Media & Communication.
“It used to be difficult for ballerinas to attend college and dance fulltime,” she said. “But with online degree programs, that's beginning to change.”
Which means ballet's future leadership looks brighter than ever. And that's a good thing, because young dancers like AvaRose have a lot of ideas on how to make ballet a healthier and more inclusive space.
The Perfect Storm
After spending just one hour talking with AvaRose, it's clear ballet has no greater advocate than the 18-year-old.
“I love ballet,” she said. “It's one of the most beautiful things in the world to me, and when you tap into the art form, you're a part of something that lives on long after you're gone.”
However, the art form can put its dancers through a lot.
“Ballet is rewarding when you dedicate yourself to it, but it's no secret it also can be toxic if you're not careful,” she said.
As beautiful as it is, it demands perfection and can tear down those without a strong capacity for criticism and discipline. And in the words of sports psychologist Dr. Brian Goonan, sometimes, it's just not “fair.”
“That's a phrase and concept we hear a lot from young children,” Goonan said. “They're very preoccupied with fairness, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.”
Goonan explains ballet is not for those with such a preoccupation.
“Most companies have one costume for certain parts, and they've had that costume in that size for years,” AvaRose said. “It's incredibly cost-consuming to alter costumes season to season, so, yes, you have to be a great dancer but unfortunately there's also a size that's become standard in the industry. Many ballerinas already struggle with body dysmorphia because our art is so visual. It's a struggle I've dealt with myself, always wondering if I'm thin enough.”
In some cases, a dancer's physique doesn't meet the longstanding expectations of a ballerina.
“Ballet can be unfair,” Goonan said. “You might train harder than anyone in your company, but if the company only has one costume and it doesn't fit, you're not getting the part. Unlike a track runner, it's not just about finishing first, you also have to look good doing it.”
Goonan gained clinical experience with dancers during his almost decade-long tenure with the Houston Ballet. But it doesn't take a psychologist to notice certain trends.
“We're talking about 13-year-old girls – they are still cognitively and emotionally developing,” Goonan said. “They don't have a mental framework worked out yet, so when they're told they need to look a certain way or that their hips are too wide, that's going to significantly affect their sense of self going forward.”
While it's common for ballerinas to struggle with body dysmorphia and thus eating disorders, according to Goonan, it's not for looks alone.
“Yes, being petite is a big part of the look,” he said. “But dancers also form eating disorders to have something to control. So much of ballet is outside a dancer's control, so eating disorders become a way for them to feel they have some semblance of control over their circumstances.”
Combine this with the mental maturity of a middle schooler but half the resources and outlets, in Goonan's words, you get the perfect storm.
Fortunately for AvaRose, she's had supportive parents, instructors and community throughout her decade of training. Unlike many young dancers, AvaRose was not in a tutu as a toddler. In fact, she didn't start dancing until she was 9. After seeing a ballet performance at her local school, she was sold.
“I was entranced,” she said. “As soon as the show ended, I begged my parents to let me take dance classes.”
Eventually, her parents agreed.
AvaRose's instructors immediately noticed her intrinsic talent. After only two years of classes, she was landing leading roles.
“AvaRose stood out the moment she joined my studio,” said Diane Cypher, artistic director of the Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre. “By the time she was 12 years old it was obvious to everyone that she had a special talent.”
AvaRose conquered the challenging role of the Swan Queen Odette in Tchaikovsky's “Swan Lake” at only 14.
“Her talent and dedication were mesmerizing,” Cypher said. “AvaRose has a maturity to her dancing that's almost as if she'd mastered the art in a past life. I've only seen a talent like AvaRose's one other time, and that student became a principal dancer of the Houston Ballet.”
After only a few short years, it was evident AvaRose was outgrowing the opportunities in her hometown. After discussing it as a family, AvaRose began to audition for training schools around the nation.
“If you want to dance professionally, one option is to study at a school attached to a company,” AvaRose explained. “One of my absolute favorite dancers is Melody Mennite. She is phenomenal. She's also from Santa Cruz like me and is a principal dancer at the Houston Ballet.”
AvaRose knew Mennite had studied under Ben Stevenson, who coincidentally, was now the choreographer at Texas Ballet Theater. When AvaRose made the connection, the Fort Worth-based school moved toward the top of her list.
She and her family packed up and moved from California to Texas.
“I began studying at Texas Ballet Theater when I was 14 years old,” AvaRose said. “I trained from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, so I had to enroll in an online high school.”
AvaRose's life was dramatically changing, but the sacrifices were worth the opportunity.
Then COVID-19 hit.
“I was so frustrated,” AvaRose recalled. “There had been this momentum to my career up to that point. I was able to secure some big roles early on, I seemed to have natural talent and was accelerating quickly. So, when all that came to a screeching halt it was really discouraging.
“My sense of identity was turbulent during that time as well. Being a ballerina was my identity and when I couldn't perform, I had to discover who I was beyond ballet.”
Amid that, she also battled a sense of guilt.
“I know the pandemic was outside my control, but my family had just moved across the country for me, and now I couldn't attend class,” she said.
While conditions were less than ideal, AvaRose did what she could with what she had. She woke up every morning and attended Zoom classes in her garage, which served as her makeshift studio throughout the pandemic.
“I get my work ethic from both of my parents, but especially my father,” AvaRose said. “He's an entrepreneur and has worked in startup technology most of my life. I've seen him work hard and I inherited his ambition.”
While training in the garage made for some uncomfortable days, it also made AvaRose extremely resilient.
“We'd only lived in Fort Worth for six months when the pandemic hit,” said Andrew Dillon, AvaRose's father. “That's when AvaRose came up with a design for our garage. I installed Marley flooring along with bars and mirrors. In the winter we had to augment the heat and there were some very cold mornings, especially when the winter storms hit in 2021.
“In the summer, we augmented as much air conditioning as we could, but AvaRose had to deal with heat and sweat, but she pushed through.”
At times, AvaRose wondered if she'd made the wrong choice.
“Our family made many sacrifices to move to Texas and there were days in the garage when I questioned what it was all for,” she said.
Right choice or wrong, she was committed. Eventually, things opened back up and AvaRose was able to train in the studios during her third and fourth years of high school.
Still, a guilt gnawed at her.
It was a feeling she's battled most of her career.
“It's definitely a guilt I put on myself,” she said. “My family is nothing but supportive, but when people sacrifice so much to help you succeed, it can feel like there is a lot riding on your success.”
This becomes the breaking point for many dancers and performers.
“Most people can't handle the monotony of training long-term,” Goonan said. “At some point you have to figure out why you're putting yourself through something so intense, and if it's for anything less than the love of ballet, you're going to be very unhappy.”
AvaRose has danced in front of audiences of thousands and for houses barely half-full. She's danced for people who fell in love with her artistry and those who were critical.
“There comes a point when you do this for you, not for anyone else,” AvaRose said. “Making others happy can be a motivator to keep going, but it can't be your motivator for going on the journey altogether. That'll never be enough.
“You can lose yourself in ballet. Ballerinas tend to be people pleasers by nature. However, I've learned I have to respect myself over prioritizing perfection. That has become an important line for me.”
AvaRose believes the future of ballet must include companies where dancers and leadership are engaged in healthy, two-way conversations not only about the art, but also the well-being of all involved.
She knows willing that future into existence isn't enough. She must learn to think critically about how to get there.
“That's why I decided to go to Texas Tech,” she said.
“I am lucky to have the support I do,” AvaRose said.
And AvaRose knows her experience is more an exception than the norm.
“I want dancers to stay in love with ballet,” she said. “Many dancers are typecast over and over, or develop unhealthy habits, and they end up losing the love they once had for the art.”
AvaRose believes a few things need to happen to set ballet on a more positive trajectory.
“First, we need more representation in leadership,” she said.
According to an article in Forbes, female ballet dancers outnumber male dancers 20-to-1. However, two-thirds, if not more, of ballet leadership is male. Last year, the American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet both hired female directors – a bold decision noticed by others in the industry.
“I think it's really cool I live in a time when women are filling these positions,” AvaRose said. “But there is still a long way to go.”
Bringing on female leadership is just the first step; the industry also is learning to embrace Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) performers.
Pacific Northwest Ballet dominated the news cycle last year for its creativity in reimagining roles in George Balanchine's “The Nutcracker.” After dancers expressed discomfort about the choreography, the leadership of the ballet thought hard about the points the dancers were bringing up.
“The Nutcracker is a really old story,” AvaRose said. “And sometimes old stories carry baggage from the way the world was seen in another time. I thought Pacific Northwest was very brave to try something new, especially with a classic.”
This carries AvaRose into her second idea.
“Ballet needs open, two-sided communication between its leaders and its dancers” she said. “Historically speaking, in ballet, dancers have always been quiet, a muse. And while respect for leadership is certainly important, it doesn't mean dancers can't have a voice at all.”
Goonan has seen this over his years of practice as well.
“There is a strong hierarchy in ballet,” he said. “If you're a dancer, you do not question the choreographer. Now, maybe a choreographer says they're open to feedback, but then that must be tested. How is feedback actually handled? Is it welcomed, or merely tolerated?”
Some ballets are breaking away from outdated traditions, but effort alone is not enough, there must be substantial change in the very culture of the organization.
“The power disparity between directors and dancers is such an engrained part of ballet,” AvaRose said. “This dynamic is perpetuated by ideals you grow up with in ballet school. Looking to the future, I'd like to see more mental health resources, available earlier.”
This is where AvaRose's third priority comes in.
“There is a lot of great momentum in our industry,” she said. “But at the end of the day, someone must know how to get all of this accomplished.
And that's why AvaRose decided to earn her bachelor's degree while dancing full-time.
Historically, dancers have felt they have to choose between dance and academics. But with the surge of online degree options, this is changing.
“I was open to both options,” AvaRose said. “I applied to universities and also auditioned for ballet companies.”
She assumed one option would work out and the other wouldn't – making her choice easy. But then she got a contract and was accepted to multiple universities.
“AvaRose became a trainee at Texas Ballet Theater because of her relentless work ethic and talent,” said Tim O'Keefe, acting artistic director of Texas Ballet Theater. “Her passion and dedication are an inspiration.”
Those strengths were observed by others as well.
AvaRose received a full-ride scholarship to Southern Methodist University, but when she was offered a trainee position, she realized she wanted to dance while attending college, which wouldn't work at SMU.
“I needed a university with a strong online program,” she said.
That's when her attention was drawn to Texas Tech.
“I remember when AvaRose was selecting a university,” her father said. “She was considering her passion for ballet and underserved dancers and felt studying communications would be the best way to make an impact.”
When AvaRose discovered that Texas Tech offered a fully online degree in public relations and strategic communication management, she knew she'd found the right fit.
“I've really loved the program because it includes communication theories and practice, but it also prepares you for management,” she said. “So, it's relevant to what I want to do.”
AvaRose takes three or four classes each semester and classes in the summer, getting her studying done during evenings after practice.
“I study at home or take my work to a coffee shop,” she said. “The only weeks where it gets really intense is performance weeks. Then I might be submitting assignments in the dressing room, but I make it work.”
AvaRose takes the concepts she learns in class and makes notes of how she can integrate them for the dancers she hopes to lead one day.
“That's why going to school is important to me,” she said. “Not only will it make me better, but hopefully it'll make a difference for dancers and encourage more women that not only can they dance and go to college, but they can be leaders in this industry.”