By B.D. McClay
Continuing with our recent alumni profiles. . .here’s an interview with Rebecca Needhammer: ballet instructor, Tolstoy enthusiast, and ex-aspiring lawyer.
All right, so, I put out this call on Facebook for recent alumni to interview, and somebody told me: “you need to talk to Rebecca Needhammer, she entered St. John’s planning to go to law school and now she’s a professional dancer.” And I thought: “yes! I do indeed need to talk to this person.”
I’m actually not a professional dancer yet! I teach at a ballet school in Flagstaff, Arizona, where my father has taught for several years. (He was a professional ballet dancer for twenty years.)
I aspire to join a ballet company in the next year or so. Because I took four years off to go to St. John’s, I have spent the last year and am currently training so I can audition for companies. I dance, either by myself or in class, for at least three hours a day.
Let’s start with highschool Rebecca: why did you come to St. John’s? Did you initially view it as good law school prep, or was it more like. . .“law is the lucrative career I can later use to justify this education”? Did you dance before St. John’s?
Lately, I have trouble answering this question because. . .there is an easy answer but the real answer is long and a little complicated. The easy answer is, when I started looking at colleges, I wanted to go to law school and St. John’s was notorious as a law school prep school.
Now here is the real answer: I have no idea why I went to college at all! I still don’t fully understand high school Rebecca’s motives. As I mentioned, my dad was a dancer so I grew up in that world. I knew Clara’s part in The Nutcracker before I could really walk. My sister and I would sit at the front of the studio while my dad took company class. We had ballerinas for babysitters. I did my homework in dressing rooms of theaters. I started taking class when I was five and never stopped.
Then something happened in middle school or early high school. I decided I wasn’t going to be a dancer. I don’t know why—maybe I thought I wasn’t good enough or thin enough or it wasn’t sensible. I made up all this stuff in my head. I did Mock Trial and was quite good at it. I enjoyed it. I decided that I would be a good lawyer, so I started thinking about law school and schools that would be good for undergrad. One of my mom’s friends is a St. John’s alumna and recommended the school to me as a place that pumps out good future lawyers.
I looked into the school, prospied, and decided that St. John’s was the place for me, not just because it was “a good idea,” but because I could tell there was something magical about that monastic school in the hills of Santa Fe. It was the place I needed to go to school. I was right about that.
But until the day I packed the car to go off to school, I kept dancing at a high level. One of my crowning achievements to date is getting “Distinction” (the highest mark) on my Advanced 2 RAD exam (the second highest level). This qualified me for the Genée International Ballet Competition in Toronto.
The Genée is one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world, with some of the best young dancers competing. To be a part of that was absolutely phenomenal. I did that the week before I went to St. John’s. Going to the Genée should have proved to me that I was good enough to be a dancer. In a way it did. However, I was still going to go to college and be sensible and get a respectable job and never have to worry about money.
That’s what I told myself, anyway.
Did you become disillusioned with the thought of going to law school, or did you just fall in love with dancing?
I’m not sure if I got disillusioned with the idea of law school; I think it just slipped away from me as something I wanted to pursue. If you asked me what law school I wanted to go to I couldn’t tell you because I never looked into it. I became interested in other things while at St. John’s. For example, if I went back to school next fall because, say, I shattered my leg in some tragic accident that was of course not my fault, I would go for Russian literature (I wrote my senior essay on War and Peace).
Even so, I never let go of my love of dance. Whenever things got bad, I would go to the Fine Arts Building and dance in the wretched studio with the concrete floors and the fat mirrors, and everything would be OK because I still remembered my plies and tendus.
Was there a big moment, when you thought, “I want to do this all my life and I’ll do whatever it takes”?
I think it was an accumulation of moments. There was one in particular. Sophomore year was pretty rough, especially at the end. Thirty people left our class. Naturally, I started thinking about whether I should be the thirty-first person to leave. One day in the summer after sophomore year, I went for a walk in the woods. I started thinking about what I wanted, and then it hit me: to dance. And not just to dance but to be a dancer.
Then I remembered all the wonderful moments at St. John’s. All those times my mind was blown by a new idea, my friends, my tutors, the beauty of the snow on Monte Sol, the thought that I will learn so much at St. John’s, all flashed in front of me. It was like in War and Peace when Andrei is in the ambulance with shrapnel in his gut. He remembers everything that matters most to him and everything somehow becomes clear. Of course I didn’t draw that parallel at the time because I hadn’t read War and Peace, but now that seems like a fair comparison. I decided I would finish St. John’s because that was important to me, but I would be a dancer because that is what I was meant to do.
But honestly, I have to remind myself of this moment every day. Every time I don’t want to do pilates in the morning because I did it yesterday and I’m tired, I have to tell myself, “If you do it now, it will be easier tomorrow.” Every time I go to my favorite coffee shop and gaze at the pastries, I think, “I love dancing more than pastries. It’s a safer bet that the pastry is tasty than that I will get in a company, but why not take the risk on the ballet career? There will always be pastries.”
So: what are you doing right now? What kind of dance do you do, anyway?
Mostly I do ballet. I have done modern and jazz, but I’m a ballet dancer. I like having slick hair, sparkly earrings, and pretty floral wrap skirts which impeccably match my leotards and hair decorations. I like it when little girls stare at me because they think I’m a beautiful ballerina. Perhaps it’s vain, but I can tell that I’m inspiring those girls to do their hair better next week and dance their best in my class.
Even though teaching is not my dream right now, I feel like I’m doing something for those kids. What’s more, I’ve learned more about ballet from teaching it than I have just from doing it.
I’ve always thought that, if you really want to go into the performing arts, St. John’s is a really unwise choice, because you have to hone those talents really intensely and you have to start so young. Actually, I said that in my piece about the humanities! But I ended up getting some pushback on that from people in positions similar to yours, saying: “no, it’s not the wrong choice for people going into the arts.”
So, how much of a tradeoff has it been? Do you ever wish you’d gone someplace else? Has it made surprisingly little difference? Has it even given you a leg up in some ways? (Haha. Leg up.)
In some respects, St. John’s is a terrible place to pursue anything except the Program. I had to make time to dance and even then I didn’t dance nearly enough. I would dance maybe twice a week, which is nothing. Ballet is physical. It requires constant practice, physically and mentally. Sitting in a chair hunched over a book is basically the opposite.
But I truly believe that a St. John’s education is what you make it. If you think of it in isolation, as “something you did in college”—if you think of the books as something separate from you or your life—it doesn’t matter what you do because you will get nothing out of it. If you think of your education as something that has made you who you are and the ideas have shaped your mind in an irreversible way, again, it doesn’t matter what you do because you will have been made better because of those four years.
There has, however, been a huge tradeoff. Training-wise I’m four years behind other dancers my age. I’m “old” to be starting my ballet career. I’m in debt for this fancy education and I want to pursue a career that pays beans if I’m lucky. On the other hand, the more advanced you get at anything, the more intellectual it becomes. More wisdom is required to be successful. I spent four years being “intellectual.” Things happened to me during those years that have made me wiser. In that way I have a leg up on all those spunky eighteen-year-olds who have never had to live their own lives or think for themselves.
What recommendations would you make for aspiring dancers going to St. John’s? How can they stay competitive?
Realistically, the best way to stay competitive in dance is to dance. You can’t dance a few times a week for four years and think you can just go be a dancer. That’s ludicrous!
We all have to remember excellence in anything is about sacrifice. If you want to be an excellent student, you might have to let other parts of you sit on the bench. I would say I was successful at St. John’s, but at a cost. If I had spent more time dancing or at the gym, I might not have done so well with my schoolwork. Maybe I would have done better because I would have been happier. Who knows?
The other side of that is if you want to be a dancer or an Olympic marathoner or a concert violinist, you have to do that. I’m ashamed to admit that I have hardly read anything all year, but that is because I’m in the studio all the time. I don’t have time for my “Johnnie life,” because I have a dancer’s life now. To be frank, I’m more cut out for a dancer’s life. I can dance for six hours a day but I have trouble sitting still for one.
I suppose if I had to give advice to an aspiring dancer at St. John’s, or anyone for that matter, I would say: if you really want something, you can get it, no matter how crazy it may seem. If it feels right, it is.
What do you love most about dance? Is there a particular routine or piece of music that you consider your favorite?
There is something about the way I feel when I dance. I can’t quite describe it. Everything can go wrong in my day, and then class starts and everything turns around. I guess it’s like what yoga is supposed to do. I want to dance well in that moment so I focus on myself, primarily on my physical self, which allows me to suspend all the negative thoughts I have about things that happened outside of me. There’s also something that changes in my mind and soul, too. I’m most happy and myself when I dance and I can feel that. It’s almost religious. When I miss a day or two of dancing, I get all antsy and feel great cosmic discomfort. Then I go to the studio and all is right in the world.
The second thing is, I like the idea of striving for perfection. You are never done with ballet. Something can be really darn good, but you know what, it can be better. Some people find this disheartening. It depends how you look at it. I visited Santa Fe after graduating and met with one of my tutors. I was describing my project to him and he said, “It sounds like you’re striving for arete.” That idea is very charming to me. I like the idea that I can do something really well without being done with it. It would be so boring to be done with something.
As to the question of my favorite pieces: the list goes on! If I had to pick one role that became “mine”, I would pick Giselle. In the first act, she is a naïve peasant girl who is betrayed by her lover, and she dies of a broken heart; in the second act she is a ghost who finds it in herself to forgive him and saves his life. The dichotomy of the spritely, love-struck girl and the ethereal, forgiving ghost is technically and dramatically challenging, but when it is done right it is awe-inspiring. To me that is what it means to be a ballerina: to be able to transcend yourself and use only the music and the body God gave you to make people feel and believe things they never thought they could.
Finally: Rebecca Needhammer, what did you get out of your liberal education?
Probably more than I realize. I have a lot of fantastic math and physic metaphors I use when I teach ballet, most of which are over the heads of my eight year olds. I do feel like a more rounded person. If I had just gone on to be a dancer after high school, I probably never would have read 99% of what I read at St. John’s. I know so many things now! I met some extraordinary people I will never forget.
Most importantly, something about St. John’s forced me to ask myself: “what do I want?” I figured it out. I am forever indebted to my liberal education and St. John’s for that.
Rebecca Needhammer teaches ballet at the Northern Arizona University Community Music and Dance Academy and sells candy at Flagstaff Chocolate Company. She graduated from St. John’s College (Santa Fe) in 2012.
Are you a recent graduate with a good story to tell? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.