Like the other members of The Washington Ballet company, ballerina Rachel Rohrich has drive, discipline, and talent. But, with an admitted late start, Rohrich didn’t take the usual path to become a ballet dancer that most of her peers did. While it’s standard for serious ballet students to begin taking instruction as early as age 2 or 3, Rohrich was almost 10 when she donned her first pair of ballet slippers for class.”When you’re starting ballet at age 10, you’re like a grandmother,” Rohrich jokes.
Even now, she continues to break tradition.
Rather than maintain a singular focus on dance, Rohrich has also set her sights on pursuing another passion, a career in medicine. In addition to her daily routine as a full ballet company member, Rohrich is studying to become a physician as she is completing her undergraduate pre med studies at GW and is planning to apply to medical school this coming year.
While it isn’t easy, it’s exactly where Rachel Rohrich wants to be, and she hopes that her unusual journey will serve as an example to others that defying expectations can have its own rewards — as long as you’re willing to put in the work.
Gotta Dance! Rachel Rohrich’s Life-Changing Pivot from Jazz to Ballet
From the time she was a small child, Dallas, Texas native Rachel Rohrich loved to dance. Her early passion was jazz. By the time she was 8, she and her best friend were on a competitive jazz drill team. “I wanted nothing to do with ballet,” Rohrich recalls. “I just wanted to move around and jump and just be a jazz dancer with my friend all through school.”
At the age of 9, Rohrich’s mom took her and her dance buddy to a workshop performance of the Broadway show “A Chorus Line.” There, Rohrich met Jacqueline Porter, an instructor from the Dallas Conservatory, who would become her cherished mentor.
Rohrich credits Jacqueline Porter’s tireless support with taking her dance skills to a professional level. “She really put a lot of time and effort into training me,” Rohrich says. “From [when I was] 10 years old, we would have intensive three-hour [private sessions] where we would literally just work on pliés.”
After the workshop, Porter pulled Rohrich aside and asked if she’d ever considered ballet. “I think she just recognized my ballet facility, legs, and feet,” Rohrich said. “She told my mom, ‘You need to get your child into ballet.'”
Rohrich, however, had no desire to study ballet — which she made perfectly clear at the time. “I was happy doing my jazz competitions… and I felt like I was good at it too,” she said.
Rohrich stuck to her guns, refusing to be enrolled in ballet school. Porter kept urging her mom, sending her emails, “Please bring your child to my school… She has the potential to be really good at this.”
Nearly a year later, Rohrich finally decided to give ballet a try, but unlike Cinderella, who turned into a princess at the touch of a magic wand, her transformation from jazz wünderkind to promising ballerina was less than spontaneous. “I felt like an alien… I came home and cried. I was like, ‘Mom, I cannot do this!’ But she wouldn’t let me quit,” Rohrich recalls. “We went to a couple more classes, and I eventually started to learn the new vocabulary.”
Even so, the situation remained challenging. As sure as she’d been of herself as a jazz performer, now as a ballet newbie, Rohrich was in unfamiliar waters. “I always wanted to be the best in the room, but I had to learn to accept being uncomfortable sometimes.” Rohrich credits this feeling for much of her success in professional ballet, as discomfort and pressure lead to determination and motivation to constantly challenge yourself to perform better.
Rohrich found her ballet feet and was hooked. “I don’t want to say all in one day, but over the course of about a year, everything started to click… That’s when it really was, ‘Like wow, I think I want to do this for the rest of my life.'”
Spreading Her Wings at The Washington Ballet … And Beyond
All of Rachel Rohrich’s hard work honing her ballet chops paid off with a winning video audition for a coveted slot with The Washington Ballet training program, the first rung on the ladder to becoming a full company member, while she was still in high school in Dallas,Texas. Rohrich moved to Washington for her senior year. While her parents were reluctant to let her miss graduating with her class, her studies were structured like two semesters abroad. “I was able to graduate [from] my high school (Hockaday) at home while being here,” Rohrich says.
At the time, Rohrich lobbied for homeschooling so she’d be able to ballet 24/7, but her parents stood firm. “My parents wanted me to have a normal childhood, which in the end, I’m very thankful for… because I have a lot of experiences that I think have been complementary to my growth in ballet that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.”
After a year in The Washington Ballet’s professional training program, Rohrich was promoted to the Studio Company, which she describes as “kind of like a hybrid space between the school and the company,” and subsequently selected to join their corps de ballet. While Rohrich was thrilled and excited by her career’s direction, she admits that taking the leap to become a professional ballerina was more difficult than she’d expected.
“I think…the hardest thing for me was being different,” she says. All of the friends she’d grown up with were in the process of applying to colleges. It’s hard to predict how a career in dance or any of the arts will turn out. Rohrich wondered if taking a more traditional path might offer greater security. “You go to college for four years, get a job, have a family… That’s the linear progression of your life, and that was what was modeled around me. I was like, ‘This is so uncertain… What if I don’t get into this company?'”
Uncertainty was scary, but it didn’t stop Rachel Rohrich from continuing to reach her dreams. And as it turned out, following her dreams even though she might fail turned out to be liberating. “I think you need to be comfortable not having security because that’s how we grow,” Rohrich says. “And if I hadn’t been okay with forging a more untraditional path for myself, then none of this ever would have happened.”
Blending Careers in Ballet and Medicine
If coming to terms with her decision to join a ballet company as a high school senior wasn’t tough enough, Rachel Rohrich also found herself at another crossroads. “I have a huge passion for ballet, but also I love science, biology, and medicine,” she says. “It was my senior year… and I was like, ‘I can either go to college or I can dance.'”
Rohrich worried if she left ballet to get a diploma, she might never be able to return on a professional level, but on the other hand, if she gave up college for ballet, would she be forfeiting her education? “I was really going to miss learning, and… really going to miss this part of my life that I didn’t want to give up,” she realized.
Rather than settle for either/or, Rachel Rohrich found a way to blend both of her passions, weaving what she sees as common threads between the art of dance and her love of science. Rachel is now a full time member of the Washington Ballet company as one of its youngest members
At the end of the day, she believes it’s all about storytelling.
“I’m just very thankful for ballet because I feel like it’s taught me a lot of compassion and empathy that you can’t get anywhere else… in the sense that as artists, we’re storytellers. The power of storytelling, of being able to relate to my fellow dancers… [has] taught me a lot about understanding other people’s stories. Which…again, carries over into the world of medicine and science,” Rohrich explains.
Finding the Balance and Making Her Way Forward
Juggling commitments between her college courses at George Washington University (GWU), where she’s nearly completed GMT training, and The Washington Ballet’s rigorous rehearsal and performance demands is no easy task, but Rachel Rohrich thrives on the challenge. With the help of her professors and counselors, she was able to craft a non-traditional schedule for her courses and lab work. Not everyone approved.
“[I have] met a lot of professors who told me, ‘Don’t take this class. You’re a dancer; just do that.'” Rohrich recalls. (She adds that getting great grades in those classes was the best revenge.)
“It’s been an interesting time learning how to balance these two things, but in the end, carving this path for myself has been complementary to each part of my life.”