Once Unlikely, IUPUI's Hayden Thomas Pursues Dream of Professional Ballet Dancing

In his wildest dreams, Hayden Thomas never pictured himself dancing ballet.

Sports were never his thing. Despite swimming and playing tennis at a young age, Thomas was easily bored, finding no purpose in exerting himself for contests he didn’t enjoy.

Even after getting into jazz and tap dancing, Thomas was adamant about steering clear of ballet, a genre he presumed to have a more feminine appeal.  

“Two years after I did tap and jazz (dancing), my teacher told me, ‘You have to start doing ballet,’” Thomas said. “I straight up said no. There was no way. I refused to be put into tights, said I wasn’t going to be lifting any girls, and that was that.”

But the reality was not as far-fetched as Thomas had originally imagined it to be. Six years after he first learned to dance, Thomas is now honing in on his goal of becoming a full-time performer.

A professional ballet one, at that.

Photo provided by Hayden Thomas

Photo provided by Hayden Thomas

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The idea came after watching his sisters perform in a recital.

Growing up, Thomas was unsure of many things. His interests were little, and while classmates and colleagues found their respective niches, Thomas struggled.

“There was never anything I wanted to be growing up,” Thomas said. “I never wanted to be a teacher or a scientist or a lawyer. Nothing really gave me pleasure.”

A school athlete at the time, Thomas knew that, while tennis and swimming may not have been his calling, engaging in physical activity was something he wanted to continue.

It wasn’t until his sisters’ jazz and tap dance performance that he realized how.

“I was 13 at the time, and I remember watching them thinking, ‘Wow,’” Thomas said. “Not only did their dancing look really athletic, but it also seemed fun. It was something I immediately decided I wanted to try.”

While Thomas and his mother embraced his new-found interest, his father approached the idea with hesitation. Thomas’s hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, was a conservative community, and the thought of his son becoming a dancer was slightly concerning.

Thomas chose to pursue the art regardless, taking jazz and tap dancing lessons once a week at his sisters’ studio. The more engaged he became, however, the more one lesson was not enough.

“I wanted to become a better dancer, and I knew that I needed to be dancing much more to do that,” Thomas said. “I was determined, and so my teacher ended up giving me private lessons in my garage for the next two months.”

It’s that same determination that would propel him to the “unlikely” reality he’s living today.

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Since she first became a dancer at 17, Victoria Lyras, who currently serves as the founding artistic director at the Indianapolis School of Ballet and Thomas’s ballet instructor, was convinced that ballet was the hardest of all dance genres. In her 37 years teaching, that opinion hasn’t changed.

“Ballet is the foundation of solid placement and technique,” Lyras said. “It’s about understanding how to stand and work correctly with your body, about knowing how how to master the movement and manipulate it to get more out of it.”

Practice consists of training muscles from a dancer’s head to the tip of their toes, a process that could take up seven hours of rehearsing to achieve. Miss a day, and much of the strength and stamina is gone. Ballet is, as Thomas would later come to realize, “literally an everyday thing.”

So when his teacher in Columbia encouraged him to pursue the genre, Thomas initially resisted. He knew full well what dancing ballet would entail. But after considering the improvement learning ballet would have on his overall skill, Thomas had no choice.

He wanted to get better, and as trying as it was, ballet was the best way to do it.

Photo provided by Hayden Thomas

Photo provided by Hayden Thomas

“I knew the only way I could really improve was by taking ballet, but I remember just thinking to myself during the first week, ‘This is ridiculous,’” Thomas said. “I didn’t know any male dancers, and I felt like an outcast in a class full of girls. It was hard and absolutely terrifying.”

Thomas’s frustration is not uncommon among ballet students. The complexity of the art often forces dancers to endure a test of patience.

“Initially, there’s a period of frustration because you work so hard to acquire these technical elements,” Lyras said. “You get habitually in a certain mode of working in a certain way and what you may think is correct is not necessarily the best way, and you have to retrain yourself.”

The frustration would transform into passion, however. Four months into ballet, Thomas left both jazz and tap dancing behind, determined to excel at the very art he had once refused to acknowledge.

While his love for ballet was strong, Thomas was hesitant to express it. He didn’t know of a single dancer at Irmo High School, and the threat of being singled out became a constant worry. People would judge him, he thought. He would get mocked, taunted.

Yet, with a strong network of support from close family and friends, Thomas has since been able to embrace his passion. He was proud, and after competing in a regional contest in Atlanta and participating in a national performance in New York, Thomas was finally certain in what he wanted to do.

He wouldn’t pursue teaching or science or law. Thomas wanted to dance professionally, and he was ready. He was motivated.

He was determined.

“I’m not giving up,” Thomas said. “This is it. This is what I want.”

“This is what makes me happy."

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Thomas moved to Indianapolis for his senior year of high school, enrolling at the Indianapolis School of Ballet to study under Lyras’s instruction as soon as he did.

Now a freshman at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Thomas plans on auditioning for various companies across the nation next year in hopes of achieving what once seemed to be a far-fetched possibility.

“(Thomas) has a lot of natural ability, especially for someone who started dancing much later in his life,” Lyras said. “For him, being able to embrace new information and have the determination and the mindset to think outside the box to try and achieve something on a higher level is very commendable.”

In addition to training with Lyras, Thomas has spent the last two summers studying at the Boston Ballet’s summer intensive and was accepted into the Royal Ballet School's summer intensive in London, England.

While such high-pressure and intense programs have provided him with valuable experiences, Thomas believes his determination to reach his goal stems from an even higher motive.

“I see people like Misty Copeland reaching out to the entire community and really expressing what it means to be an artist, what it means to be human, and I think, ‘I want to be them,’” Thomas said. “There are a lot of young male dancers out there who are afraid of being judged the way I was afraid, who feel like they don’t have a place in the dance world, and I want to show them that they do.”

Whether or not Thomas will be able to use the professional stage to do so is still uncertain. He knows the spotlight won’t come easily. Nothing in ballet ever has.

But Thomas won’t let that deter him. “Whatever it takes” will remain his approach, even if his chances of making it appear slim. He can do it, he tells himself.

After all, he’s already living his wildest dream.

12/505/2015: Author requested edits in wording in first paragraph. Also some fact corrections, changing that Thomas was getting private ballet lessons in his garage from two years to two months and changing that Victoria Lyras became a dancer at 17 rather than at 19 as previously recorded.