“I remember after the first year of taking ballet I wanted to quit because it was so hard, muscles in my body I didn’t even know existed were cramping and it was painful.”
Soloist at The American Ballet Theatre, Calvin Royal III took his first ballet class at the age of 14; an extremely late start to instruction in the world of classical ballet. Despite his delayed beginning, Calvin placed as a finalist in an elite scholarship competition during his senior year of high school earning himself a spot at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at The American Ballet Theatre in New York City, one of the most selective and competitive in the world. He stands alongside legendary ballerina Misty Copeland as one of only a few dancers of color to earn the distinction of Soloist at ABT performing in full-length classical ballets such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet.
Apart from long hours spent in the studio or at the theatre, making time for his body and mind to relax is equally as important as mastering technique. Royal often finds retreat by way of intentional stillness and rest, whether in Sheep’s Meadow of Central Park or at Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. He says that being one with nature is his best source of restoration.
We recently sat down with Calvin to learn about how ballet influences his recreational routine, the intimate relationships between dance, body and mindfulness and why being visible in his talents for the inspiration of others is one of his biggest motivations.
I don’t just roll out of bed and start doing a full dance sequence. I would probably injure myself. Doing warm-up exercises before starting class is so crucial and essential to prepare my body and my mind for what’s to come. Everything is warm, ready, loose and limber.
As a dancer there have been times where I’ve gotten minor injuries. Through the recovery process, I’ve learned so much about just how important it is to take time before doing those more advanced and extreme positions. To really warm yourself up properly and take time to set yourself up so you’re ready for whatever the day may bring.
Starting ballet my freshman year in high school, I had to play catch up. At the time I didn’t know that I was going to become a professional ballet dancer, it was just something that I always loved. I always loved to dance and I wanted to explore it and to explore ballet and modern dance. When I got into the high school of performing arts, it was sort of my chance to learn how to move my body in this new way.
I remember after the first year of taking ballet I wanted to quit because it was so hard, muscles in my body I didn’t even know existed were cramping and it was painful. When I came to New York, I was in a class of 12 dancers who had been studying ballet since they were four and five years old. I knew that if I wanted to get to that level I had to put in the work and the time warming up, doing the classes, doing the rehearsals, learning the entire vocabulary, just getting the strength to do half of these things. It was a journey.
I went to a summer intensive. Most young dancers go away for about six weeks to study and train with new teachers. You’re around other dancers from all over the world. Getting to see other dancers that were my age but that were just soaring and doing all these incredible things, I came back feeling like I wanted to go for it. I wanted to push past the pain and the achiness of my muscles and see how much further I could go and how much stronger I could get. That was sort of my inspiration to keep pushing myself.
I came back feeling like I wanted to push past the pain and achiness of my muscles.
To be honest with you, I’ve had many teachers, many coaches over the years that are very demanding and very in tune with the things that I would have to do as a dancer in order to grow and become the best dancer and artist that I can be. But, I feel so strongly that it’s up to me to hold myself accountable for my future my career. The places that I want to go, the things I want to do. It’s up to me to make those dreams and hopes a reality.
There are those days where I wake up in the morning and I’m just completely exhausted from the previous day of classes and rehearsals and performances but I know in the back of my mind that there are people who have paid money to come and see me perform and that too is a responsibility that I feel. I can’t just call in sick. I have to get up and slowly push through and by the time I get there and show up, it’s fine.
At that point, it’s your passion that kicks into drive. On those tough days where I have to sort of get over that hump and get out of bed, even if I feel like I’m completely exhausted, completely spent, it’s that feeling inside of me that realizes I didn’t come this far to not take that next step, to not push past tiredness or pain. This is something I’ve worked for so many years and have devoted my life to, and I never want to feel like I’m taking that for granted. So I keep pushing, I keep striving to be a little bit better than the day before.
Misty Copeland’s always been that person in the company that I felt a connection with. She’s always been really kind, super open and sweet with me and has opened so many doors. We performed in Houston, Texas together doing Cinderella and she asked me to be her prince. We shot the Pirelli Calendar together and she has always been someone who hasn’t been afraid to take the level of success that she has and reach down and open up opportunities for people like me who are on the come up. I am able to stand there with her and in my eyes that is incredibly powerful. The fact that there are two black dancers in one of the world’s leading classical ballet companies, that’s something that you don’t see every day. I think and I hope that in the future, that’s something that will become something that we do see every day. It’s incredibly powerful being able to be in this position now, and it’s an honor to be able to represent something that’s bigger than me. Hopefully, kids seeing that possibility are thinking “Oh wow, maybe I can do that too.” That’s important to me.
This is an art form that has significant history behind it, but I feel like people like [Misty and I] that are taking on these roles and positions, who have worked and dedicated our lives to this, can one day open more doors of opportunity. It’s crucial for the art form to continue to thrive and be relevant and just represent more than what it has before in its 100 year plus history.
I feel so strongly that it’s up to me to hold myself accountable for my future, my career, the places that I want to go, the things I want to do.
On Inspiration & Passion
The sense of discipline and determination to do the right thing may have stemmed from my childhood because my dad was in the army and our home was very orderly. From a young age that order and discipline was instilled in me, so later on when I got into more artistic endeavors, I think that sort of helped me to stay focused and really go after something that I felt inside of me was the right thing. I’m still here, I’m still doing it.
My brother followed in my dad’s footsteps, he went into the army and he’s married now with a son. My brother played football, he played basketball. I tried to play sports as a kid, I think maybe that helped me in terms of the athleticism of what I do now, but I definitely think I always felt this… I don’t even know where it stemmed from… I know my grandmother loved the arts, she loved music, she loved dance and opera. Once I was exposed to those things, I just took off, it was something that I just loved to be around. I loved to watch programs that came on TV for the holidays, like seeing the Nutcracker, I wanted to be part of it in some way.
I’m from the Tampa Bay area. When I’m here in New York, and my family makes it up to see me perform at the Metropolitan Opera House, it’s one of the greatest feelings to be able to share that with them. Growing up we moved every two years when my dad was in the army. Then when we moved to Florida, my parents got separated, that’s when I started ballet. When my family is able to see me perform or be in the studio to watch rehearsals or get to meet other dancers that I’m performing with, it’s magical. I never thought that this would be my life and being able to bring them into that is so special.
two black dancers in one of the world’s leading classical ballet companies, that’s something that you don’t see everyday.
It’s always tricky to balance the intensity of the work that I do in the studio, on stage, day in and day out, but there are times throughout the year that our company has time off to do other projects or take time completely off. I always love to travel. In the summertime, my boyfriend and I like to take at least two to three weeks to explore parts of this country that neither of us have seen. The past two summers we’ve gone on road trips through the southwest. I love being in nature and I’ve discovered a part of myself that I didn’t really know before. We go visit national parks, Red Rocks, Sequoias. When I’m traveling, I feel like I can use that quiet, that stillness. When I come back to New York, I feel like I’m renewed and restored and I can take on another season.
When I’m in the city and the schedule is really crazy with work and the show schedule is keeping me in the theatre until 11 o’clock at night, when I do get breaks or we’re not performing, I like to go to Central Park’s Sheep’s Meadow. I will go and lay in the grass or take a walk down those little windy paths where there may not be a whole lot of people and just find that quietness and stillness because that helps me when I go back; feeling like I can conquer it all.
This past summer, I was sitting on the deck in this house we were staying at and there were no sounds of traffic, no planes, no honking like we have in the city. I heard the wind whistling through the trees. Being able to be immersed in and surrounded by that fills me up so much, it makes me feel one with nature and creation around me. I feel that vibration and it’s empowering, it makes me feel restored.
I tried to play sports as a kid. I think maybe that helped me in terms of the athleticism of what I do now.
Breath is important whether I’m performing, in the studio or if I’m standing still in nature. Sometimes we’re performing a two and a half hour full-length ballet and in order to ground myself and to be able to make it through that, I have to consciously be aware of my breath and how I’m using it to sustain me and propel me. There are moments where I have to pull back and do a little bit of the minimum in order to conserve the right amount of energy–so that when I go for a big leap or I’m soaring across the stage I have that big inhale and exhale to take off and to make it happen. When I’m not performing and I’m not in that intense environment and I’m in nature, being able to take a deep breath helps me relax and settle into the environment around me and helps me to connect more with nature and with myself.
The principles in dance that reflect in my real life are definitely the sense of focus and balance and breath and communication with my partners. Dance lends itself to communication with my partner outside of the studio. Being able to collaborate and work in groups helps me too when I’m not dancing. Working with other artists on something that speaks is something valuable and meaningful.
I have to consciously be aware of my breath and how I’m using it to sustain me and propel me.
Ultimately, the reason why I hope to achieve and dream beyond what I do now is really to create possibility. I feel like a lot of times it’s so powerful when you can see something. It creates that sense of belief and hope that there is a possibility to do it or to be it. If I can do that for one person, that would be incredible.
Photo and video by Anthony Prince