Haley Henderson is a professional ballet dancer who is currently a member of Ballet San Jose. She danced for 6 years with the Royal Danish Ballet, a world-renowned company, and spent a summer dancing with American Ballet Theatre. During our interview, she explains why discipline is so important, how she has been able to defeat jealousy and peer pressure and do what’s right and loving, how knowing her relationship with God gives her confidence, why she likes ballet, and more.
How did you get interested in ballet?
When I was a little girl, my sister and I danced. I quit ballet because I thought it was boring. But when my sister went on point, it became interesting to me, and I got a new teacher. She was Romanian and was very serious about ballet. It wasn’t just running around. So when I was 8-9, I knew ballet was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
How did you know at the age of 8 that you wanted to sign up for something that requires so much discipline?
I have never liked it when people don’t take things seriously and don’t give 100%. It’s just so much more fun when you’re disciplined. You see results much faster; you see your progress. The minute someone slacks off and says, “Do whatever you want!” my response is, “Why bother?” It’s much more fun to be pushed and to work with someone who demands perfection. But I’ve also always been a perfectionist, which is something I’m working to change.
Perfectionism has both negative and positive connotations. How are you working on it?
Perfectionism is something I really have to watch: Am I demanding material perfection, or am I realizing that I’m reflecting God? It’s easy to get into a rut of wondering if you’re physically perfect. But you never will be physically perfect, especially with ballet. We do the same things every day. Sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t. But realizing I’m a reflection of God gives me so much freedom. The grace and power I express are reflected from God, not created by me. The egos artists often have come from feeling that they create something. And they can fall pretty hard when things don’t work out. Knowing that I reflect God takes the pressure off thinking that I have to do everything perfect every day. The source isn’t me; it’s God.
What do you like about ballet?
So many different things! I feel like we all have different outlets to express our talents. I feel so close to God when I dance. There’s so much harmony in moving to music -- fluidity, grace, power, and balance. It’s such a fine art form. You can’t just do the movement; it has to look effortless, and that’s hard when you put so much effort into every detail. You can’t even look like you’re breathing because that ruins the illusion. Working every day at the same thing, you have to have so much discipline. And discipline is such a benefit and blessing to your whole life. You’re not always going to have someone telling you what to do throughout life. Discipline, which comes from God, helps you move forward and improve and produces better results. You develop as a dancer and gain new views with each experience. It’s fun to work with different companies. And it’s performing. That’s just the best! When you’re out there, it’s just a great feeling.
Do you ever get nervous performing?
Sometimes I can feel nervous. But with experience, that has become less and less. When I really rely on God as the source of my ability, the fear of failure disappears. There is a great freedom that comes with performing. It is just you and the music and the audience sharing in the performance. The joy and freedom surpass anything you feel while rehearsing and preparing.
What are some of the challenges you have had, and how have you overcome them?
Injuries are expected in ballet. You’re told when you’re 25 that you’re really going to feel a difference, that you’re going to have a hard time getting out of bed. Conversations begin with, “What’s hurting you?,” not, “How are you?” It’s also a constant struggle to resist getting consumed by thinking about or fearing injuries, especially with the issues surrounding a dancer’s feet. I’m not saying that I’ve never had injuries, because I have. But in my 7 years of dancing, I’ve never been off for longer than a week, and that’s unheard of. Dancing is about expressing qualities, and qualities can’t get injured. I keep my thought prepared so I’m not impressed by other people’s injuries, and I don’t let fear in.
How do you prepare? Have any Bible passages or stories helped you?
I pray every day for myself and acknowledge that God is the only power; there isn’t another power. That goes for wherever you are. There are politics in ballet. People do immoral things to get parts. So I’ve learned that it’s important to realize God, Principle, is in control and that God is my Director. I pray to see everyone as God’s child, no matter what others are doing or how they’re acting. There tend to be many extreme personalities in the arts, and often they clash. I also pray to see that there’s order. I’ve used the 91st Psalm so many times. It helps me feel protected and upheld by the angels. It’s been especially helpful in situations that seem to involve a lot of envy or jealousy concerning roles that I, or another dancer, am performing.
It sounds like you’ve had to deal with jealousy. How do you deal with it?
Oh yeah. People get very jealous. It is always difficult when you are singled out to do a leading role. In my second year at the Royal Danish Ballet, I was only 18 when I was chosen to do a main role in a full-length ballet. The other dancers were less than thrilled and felt that it was unfair for such a young, inexperienced dancer to perform a role like this. Feeling such envy made me nervous. I remember actually shaking as I danced. It’s amazing how much you can feel things like that. I worked a lot with the 91st Psalm, and it helped me to feel calm and protected. It turned out to be a wonderful growing experience for me. I learned a lot about leaning on God as the source of my ability. In the end, everyone in the company wants the ballet to be the best thing with the right people in the right roles. The longer I stayed, the less jealousy there was, and I only felt support.
I still work with the 91st Psalm all the time. When I first came to Ballet San Jose, I didn’t know anyone, and I had to overcome some typical stereotyping. In a ballet company, there’s usually the feeling that anyone who is new and experienced is out to take parts away from the other dancers. When you don’t know others, it seems easier to assume that they’re divas because so many people are. People are always surprised that I’m not. I’ve had to prove myself and show that I do work hard, deserve the parts, and am nice. There’s usually a transition period when they realize that I don’t have a “queen” attitude and am not out to take their roles away from them. Then their attitudes toward me quickly change. But the “it’s-not-fair” and complaining attitudes seem to be a dancer thing. Dancers talk about what’s not fair and who should be doing what. And it’s not always fair. I’ve had my share of being in situations which weren’t fair. But I try not to get sucked into sitting around and complaining and gossiping, which seems to be a huge draw to many.
So what do you do that assures people that you’re not a diva, that you are indeed nice?
I just try to be myself and express as much love as I can to everyone. People always respond to love. Sometimes it’s a challenge to love people, especially when they’re not loving to you. And sometimes you feel really justified in not liking others because you look at what they’ve done, but that doesn’t help anyone. It keeps you mad and keeps the whole situation unpleasant. It helps me to know that I don’t have to love what people are doing but can love them as God’s children. You can always find something good about others.
You’ve mentioned immorality. How have you handled some of the various pressures?
There are drugs and sex and this and that, which are seen to come along with the arts world. A lot of people are easily influenced by all those things. There was a lot of pressure on me when I moved to Denmark at such a young age. Denmark is a wonderful country with remarkably kind people, but it is also a very liberal culture. Immoral behavior is considered the norm, and not to take part is really unheard of and considered old-fashioned. But when people saw me not joining in -- having never seen anyone do that before -- and realized my life was going well, they began to respect me for my choices. Everyone ends up learning, but I had a lot less difficult experiences because I was trying to do the right thing.
Have any Bible stories helped you in your decisions to do the right things?
There are so many stories that I’ve worked with in the Bible. Daniel kept on doing the right thing (praying to God) even when he knew he would be thrown into the lions’ den as a result. But he knew he would be all right. This is a great story that supports doing the right thing. Though his prayers and right actions didn’t keep him out of the lions’ den, they did keep him protected and safe while he was in there (Dan 6). Here’s a wonderful demonstration -- proof of God taking care of His children no matter how it looked. It looked like the other princes were winning, but they weren’t. Daniel kept loving, and he was protected and rewarded. The princes were not. Every story of Jesus also inspires me. How hated can you be, and how much love can you express? All we need to do is look at Jesus’ example.
What’s helpful to know about making a career out of ballet?
It’s a lot harder than you expect. The training is really difficult. You have to have a lot of discipline. You have to give up things. I didn’t go to high school; I went to junior college when I was 14, did a little bit of home schooling, and got my A.A. (Associates in Arts) degree when I was 16. I gave up prom. I gave up the whole high school social scene. But I knew what I wanted. Even when you make it, it’s hard. It seems like getting the first job is the hardest thing, but it’s not. Everyday dancing is the hardest. You don’t have anyone standing over you making you do well. You have to do it yourself. No one cares if you do this or not. So you have to be very secure. Although I’m not incredibly secure in every way, I am very secure in my relationship with God.
What do you know about your relationship with God that makes you feel secure?
I know I’m loved by God, which makes me feel very secure. Sometimes people can mistake that security for being conceited or overly confident, since I don’t feel that I need to go along with the crowd. I never went through the rebellious teenage thing. Why would I do that? I saw my friends make mistakes, and they weren’t happy. I was happy. I have a great relationship with my parents, and I didn’t want to mess that up. Even as a little kid, I always wanted to do the right thing. Sometimes my desire to do the right thing was a little extreme, and I’ve had to learn to relax over the years. But I know that if I am doing right, following the commandments, and loving God, good will follow. When I see God as my Father and Mother, my Best Friend, I don’t fear chance or the unexpected; I don’t expect something hideous to happen. That doesn’t mean that bad things never happen. But I have more confidence that I’m secure in God even if something does happen.
How were you able to make such sacrifices?
Honestly, it didn’t feel like a sacrifice. I was so 100% sure of what I wanted to do and how much I loved ballet. I knew I had to do these things. Every now and then I would wish that I could go out on Friday night rather than dance until 9 p.m. I told my parents when I was 9 that I wasn’t going to go to college; I was going to dance. And they said okay. It was great to have supportive parents. Not going to high school was a sacrifice, and it was completely worth it. People argue that you’ll miss that life experience, but I was living in another country when I was 17. I bought an apartment and was living on my own when I was 20. Talk about life experiences!
I’ve been able to dance in one of the most respected dance companies in the world in Copenhagen, dancing in beautiful old historic theatres. We opened a new opera house once, and that was amazing. I got to dance with the best U.S. company for 9 weeks in New York -- dancing with all the dancers I’d loved since I was a child. And now I’m able to dance at Ballet San Jose and be close to my family (in the same state) after having been so far away from them for so long. We’re doing a program in March to Elvis’ music, called “Blue Suede Shoes,” which will be pretty fun since we get to dance to music with words (which is rare). I feel pretty blessed to have had such incredible opportunities.