Gift Sapianchai, who came to the U.S. from Thailand, in Esmeralda

Joe Lyman, Courtesy Kentucky Ballet Theatre

Coming to America: 3 Dancers on Why They Moved to the U.S. to Pursue Ballet Careers

American Repertory Ballet's Ryoko Tanaka remembers her first class in the United States. She was 18 years old and a scholarship student at the Milwaukee Ballet summer intensive. "At barre, I reached out during demi-plié, and I saw the guy across from me in the class. I could tell he was enjoying himself. I could tell these people loved ballet. And I felt I fit." From then on the Japan native, now in her first season as a full company member with ARB, was certain the U.S. was where she was meant to make her career.

For dancers like Tanaka who cross borders to join American companies, the challenges of being far from home, adjusting to a new culture and navigating visa applications quickly become a fact of life. Yet, as these expat dancers' stories show, with a little patience, dancing abroad can be an incredible adventure.


Making the Move

What draws dancers to the U.S. to dance? For Tanaka, it was a sense artistic fulfillment and community—something she hadn't felt during her competition-focused training in Japan. On the other hand, Azamat Asangul, a Festival Ballet Providence dancer from the Kyrgyz Republic, left his home seeking adventure and new challenges. After graduating from Bishkek Choreographic School at 18, Asangul auditioned for the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg and was accepted into the school's highest level. "I bought my flight ticket one way," he says. Soon his "one way" philosophy led him to companies in Moscow, South Korea and eventually the U.S., where fresh challenges, like the mix of classical and contemporary repertoire and the opportunity to learn English, enticed him to stay.

Ryoko Tanaka in Kirk Peterson's The Eyes That Gently Touch with Jacopo Jannelli

Karen Leslie Moscato, Courtesy American Repertory Ballet

Thai dancer Gift Sapianchai also moved here for a new experience, although she never intended to have a dance career. Growing up in Bangkok, where the project-based Bangkok City Ballet is the country's only ballet troupe, Sapianchai expected to stop dancing after high school and get a "regular" degree from a local university. But her path changed course when, at 15, her dance teacher encouraged her to apply for the Kirov Academy of Ballet's summer intensive in Washington, D.C. The summer program was full, and she was accepted into the school's year-round program instead.

"I thought I was going to go for a year, just to see what it was like," says Sapianchai, but the experience opened her eyes to the possibilities of dancing professionally, and she stayed. Seven years later Sapianchai has a BFA in dance from Butler University and a season with Kentucky Ballet Theatre under her belt.

Azamat Azangul and Charlotte Nash in rehearsal

Kirsten Evans, Courtesy Festival Ballet Providence

Making Adjustments

Despite the thrill of a new country, Sapianchai recalls the mental challenges of being oceans away from home at 15. "The physical challenge is already so tough, and you don't have your family supporting you by your side," she says.

While Sapianchai already spoke English, Tanaka and Asangul struggled to learn the language. Thinking back to her first year with Milwaukee Ballet II, Tanaka says, "I wish I could go back, because I know I could do better. But I was just learning so many things all at once." Asangul fondly credits his first artistic director in the U.S., Miki Ohlsen of Island Moving Company, for helping him learn English. She even let him live in her house as he adjusted to the new country.

Brooke Mello (left) and Sapianchai in The Night Before Christmas

Courtesy Kentucky Ballet Theatre

All three dancers admit that the distance from their families takes a toll. The difference in time zones makes it hard to talk, and travel is expensive and inconvenient. For Asangul, his career in America came at an incredible family sacrifice: When his brother, a police officer in the Kyrgyz Republic, died in the line of duty, his parents spared him the news until services were over so he wouldn't feel obligated to return home and risk derailing his visa, which was still in process.

Papers and Politics

As Asangul experienced, the legal technicalities of a career abroad often have complications that are beyond dancers' control, no matter how determined and eager they are. In order to work professionally in the U.S., international dancers need to obtain a work visa. They usually need a lawyer to help prove they have the requisite "extraordinary ability" and thorough work experience, as well as a director and company with resources willing to take a chance on their talent.

Tanaka with Journy Wilkes-Davis in Nutcracker

Emily Parker, Courtesy ARB

Tanaka danced with Milwaukee Ballet II on a student visa, but when she couldn't secure a contract for the following season she had to return to Japan. For almost three years she worked in a café, saving up to go to the U.S. every audition season. But open auditions can be even tougher for international dancers, where directors may screen out those not pre-approved to work here. Tanaka finally caught her break when she emailed ARB's now former artistic director Douglas Martin about her situation. Martin invited her to join ARB's trainee program at its affiliated Princeton Ballet School, on a student visa, with the promise she would get ample performance experience and soon earn a work visa.

Worth the Challenges

Sapianchai is now in a situation similar to Tanaka's. While she attended Butler on a student visa and danced with Kentucky Ballet Theatre during her Optional Practical Training year (a program that allows international students to work in the U.S. for a year after graduating, without going through the formal visa process), she doesn't have a work visa for next season. She's returning to Thailand, where she'll be performing with Bangkok City Ballet and teaching for Dance Space by Ant, a path she never would have imagined before moving to the U.S. "It's opened up a lot of opportunities for me here in Thailand," Sapianchai explains. The performance exposure from gigs and galas with Bangkok City Ballet will also make her a more competitive work visa candidate in the U.S., or any other country, in a few years. "I'm not ready to give up just yet," says Sapianchai.

Azangul in class

Emma Margulies, Courtesy Festival Ballet Providence

Tanaka and Asangul also agree that the U.S. was the ideal place for them to grow, both as dancers and as individuals. "It's the perfect place to make connections, and there's so much opportunity to express yourself," says Asangul. For all three of these dancers, their adventurous spirits remain and the world seems wide with opportunities, their attitudes summed up by Asangul's motto: "Wherever there is ballet, I will go."

Latest Posts


Vikki Sloviter

Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Courtesy de Roos

SAB Student Founds Dancewear Nonprofit to Help Others in Need

When School of American Ballet student Alexandra de Roos was 8 years old, she placed a collection box at her dance studio for others to donate their gently used dancewear. De Roos, now 17, has since turned that single collection box into a nonprofit organization that aims to minimize economic barriers in the performing arts with free dancewear and classes.

De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

After SAB shifted its winter term online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, de Roos decided to expand Peace Love Leotards. She reached out to dance companies, resulting in partnerships with brands including Jo+Jax, Lone Reed Designs, RubiaWear and Wear Moi.

"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

#TBT: Royal Ballet Principals in a Gala Tribute to Tchaikovsky (1993)

It's not often that you get to see eight principal dancers sharing a stage, but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's centennial is a special circumstance. In a 1993 gala honoring the composer, former Royal Ballet principals Darcey Bussell and Zoltan Solymosi, Leanne Benjamin and Tetsuya Kumakawa, Lesley Collier and Irek Mukhamedov and Viviane Durante and Bruce Sansom performed alongside The Royal Opera Chorus in Madame Larina's ball scene from the opera Eugene Onegin.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks