By Ingrid Schnader
Although Frederick Rocas and Nadine Barton have been dancing together at Alabama Ballet for the past five years, they come from completely different backgrounds.
That’s because when you want to be a professional dancer, you might have to apply to studios across the world before you find a job that fits your needs.
“You have to look for the job,” Rocas said. “I moved here and sent my resume to, I don’t know how many, but everywhere. And I got some offers here and there, and I thought this was the best place to be and I’ve been here ever since.”
Rocas grew up in the Philippines. His sister did ballet, and he waited with his mother while she practiced.
“Since my sister was doing ballet and I was there waiting, my mom was like ‘You should take that class,’” he said.
He started out in gymnastics before starting ballet at 19. He said that growing up around ballet made it easier for him to pick up.
“I saw what’s nice, I saw what sucks, I saw what you have to do, and I saw what you don’t have to do,” he said.
Barton was born in California, but she grew up in Miami, Florida. She started ballet much earlier than Rocas; her mother started taking her to lessons when she was 3 years old.
“I had really bad asthma when I was a baby,” she said. “So the doctor said, ‘Put her in swimming or dancing, because it will strengthen her.’ And my mom was really afraid of the water, so she put me in dancing.”
When it came time to apply for professional dancing jobs, Barton said she would get rejected for all kinds of reasons.
“You could be really good and they’ll say, ‘You’re too tall. Your eyes are too green,’” she said. “It comes with an aesthetic.”
Moving to Alabama
Job offers by Alabama Ballet brought the pair to Birmingham.
Barton said she was surprised by the Southern hospitality when she moved here five years ago and people greeted her with, ‘Hey y’all!’
Rocas had a different experience when he moved here nine years ago.
“I got lost somewhere, and my phone was dead,” he said. “I was driving home. I used to live by Samford. There was an exit there that I missed, so I kept going (on) 31.”
When he realized he was lost, he stopped at a gas station to ask for directions.
“I was trying to be very nice and just being like, ‘Hey, I’m lost. I’m really new here. I just need to get back to Samford University,’” he said. “And then there was that racist comment of like ‘You’re from here, you’re from there, you shouldn’t be here, blah blah blah.’”
This happened on his second day living in Birmingham. He said that, for his first year of living here, he didn’t think he would stay for longer than three years. But he said Birmingham grew on him.
“Nine years ago, Birmingham was definitely different,” he said.
The Joys of Teaching
Both Barton and Rocas agree that they enjoy teaching children at Alabama Ballet, despite the hard work that goes into teaching. Rocas and Barton teach 14- to 17-year-olds, and Barton teaches a class of 11- to 12-year-olds and a class of 5-year-olds.
“You teach them, and then you watch them go through that, and you’ve been through that,” she said. “Then you can use what you have to help them, and maybe it works, but also you have to tweak it because everybody is different. What works on you might not work on them. You have to work, and it’s like a puzzle.”
Together, they helped one student overcome her fear of performing a specific step.
“She’s like, ‘Every time I do this certain step, I just get in my head, and I doubt myself, and I don’t know how to not do that,’” Barton said. “And it wasn’t a physical question; it was all mental.”
“I tell them, ‘If you fall, you fall,’” Barton continued. “You hit the floor. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to catch you. There’s no portal that’s going to open and you’re going to disappear forever. It’s just the floor.”
Rocas said he told her, “If you trip, do you stop walking?”
Advice for Others
Because professional dance is a highly competitive environment, Barton said you should only do it if you love it.
“You have to love it,” she said. “There’s too much competition. It takes a certain type of person to go through.”
“If you do it, you got to do it right,” Rocas said he always tells his students.
“And remember there’s a lot of opinionated people out there,” Barton added. “Just because one person says you can’t do it – that’s just one person, you know?”