Updated: Nov 15, 2020
Creator & Director, Ballet Brothers
Jake Burden started dancing at the age of 9. He was a Royal Ballet associate before accepting a place at The Hammond School of Dance. After 3 years of training, Jake accepted a place at Elmhurst Ballet School in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet. During his time as a student, he performed for the British Royal family at a private event at Windsor castle. Jake then joined Birmingham Royal Ballet on their 2009 UK tour.
Following this Jake was asked to guest perform in the USA for Boca Ballet Theatre in Swan Lake and then went onto accept a soloist contract with Magdeburg Ballet (Germany) and flew through the ranks to principal at the age of 19 and was awarded the German Young Dancer of the Year Award in 2011. Jake has also appeared in musicals including West Side Story, Beauty and the Beast, Evita, and Hello Dolly. Jake joined Leipzig Ballet (Germany) in 2013; he was a part of their ARTE film CHAPLIN. Following this he joined Singapore Dance Theatre; during his time there he was exposed to many gifted choreographers and performed many Balanchine works, the company also performed for Cambodian Royalty at the Cambodian Palace.
After moving to Australia in 2016, he has become a senior ballet and contemporary teacher at the National College of Dance, a member of Australian Dance Adjudicators, and a freelance choreographer. As the founder and director of Ballet Brothers, Jake is committed to empowering male dancers of all ages.
We asked Jake to reflect upon his career transition.
Can you walk us through your decision to stop dancing?
Jake Burden: I had many reasons to stop dancing but the main one was politics. I was a principal dancer for many years and danced some fantastic roles, however, when I joined some other companies where politics came into play, I would get corps de ballet offers. Initially, I thought it was a bit strange having been a principal dancer for so many years but somehow I warmed up to the idea knowing that I would just have to prove myself—again!
I was then suffering from a knee injury that had worsened over the years and was something I simply couldn’t get past. I was also at the point where I had to take pain killers just to make it through class every day and still, this was not the reason I decided enough was enough. It may sound crazy but as you mature you get to a certain stage in your career and life where you no longer tolerate people constantly talking down to you. While some directors are fantastic and do really care about your wellbeing and growth within the company, the reality is that not all directors care on that same level so you need to be strong and confident within yourself to really make it as a professional dancer.
In my last year of dancing, I had my annual review with my director and this was the breaking point. I was offered another corps de ballet contract! I was so frustrated having danced soloist and principal roles for two years in the company (plus having been a principal for 5 years prior) but somehow the director said that was all that he had for me! Once again, I felt disappointed and used. I had worked so hard to become the best dancer I could possibly be and I knew that I was worth more than a corps member's contract. A word of advice, don't talk back to the director. After I declined his offer, the director ripped up the contract right in front of me. I knew at that moment I was done! It's strange to think how angry I was at the time yet looking back, I now understand that it all happened for the best, in fact, my then director did me a huge favor and for that, I thank him.
How did you know you wanted to teach? Had you had any prior experience teaching?
Jake: I actually fell into teaching so it wasn’t something I had planned for or thought of as a potential path post-performance. I knew I wanted to perhaps become a ballet master of a company or dive into choreography as it was and still is a huge passion of mine. I did, however, teach a few classes during my training days but even then I never thought of it as a plausible career path. How things have changed! I absolutely love teaching now and would recommend it to dancers—to teach on the side while they are still a professional dancer. Why? I found that as a teacher you really have to know the 'hows and whys' of what you do, describing the movements, weight placement, and many other things to a young dancer--which ultimately made me understand my own body even better than before.
You went back to school to obtain your teaching qualifications. How do you think this benefited your teaching career and do you think it's necessary for other dancers who are transitioning into a teaching role to also do the same?
Jake: Yes, I went back to school to study a Certificate 4 in Training and Assessment (Cert 4 is essentially the qualification before a diploma). The reason behind this decision was to allow me to mark and assess students who are training through a registered course at an Elite Diploma level. Studying is always an option so for those dancers out there who are concerned about not having the right qualifications, don't stress, you definitely have time. And if you are thinking about transitioning out of dance you can always start with some online course so it doesn't take away from your performing. With a dancer's discipline, you will be just fine!
Let's talk about your platform, Ballet Brothers. I think many dancers would like to learn more about the process of building such a platform.
Jake: Ballet Brothers started purely from my own experience and the experiences of many other male dancers of all ages. I found that with most, if not all boys, grew up being the only boy in their dance class. There are a few positives and negatives to this issue, you can read more about this in my article in Dance Australia or via the Ballet Brothers. I wanted to bring as many male dancers together as possible and to have the opportunity to build a community where we can dance, talk, and share personal stories together.
Dancers, parents, and boys themselves don’t necessarily have the knowledge so I create workshops to better enable all those involved in how a male dancer should be taught.
I created a Facebook page and talked about my own experiences and I just ran with it. I opened up about situations that I had experienced that perhaps many others were not comfortable talking about.
I was also frustrated with the lack of male representation in dancewear that I decided to create my own line, BB Dancewear Line designed specifically for male dancers which was just released in October 2019. The BB line was created with the word 'Brave' in mind so we have an array of different colors and styles for boys/men to express themselves through their apparel. Additionally, all BB products are 100% Australian made and with all recycled materials.
I understand you went through the stereotypical start where you experienced bullying and discrimination as a young boy who danced. From that experience, what new narrative are you hoping to create and instill into the next generation of young male dancers?
Jake: I want to instill in the next generation that you are not alone. Society is changing and people are more accepting of dance than ever. Be proud of yourself and the art that you love. It takes a strong person to become a dancer. I actually feel sorry for the people that bully or criticize male dancers because it only shows the lack of education and their small-mindedness. Now, with platforms like Ballet Brothers and RAD's Project B we are finally taking a stand in making dance the norm.
What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or who are about to go on the journey?
Jake: Though this may not apply to everyone, do be prepared to feel a bit down at times, after all, they do say dancers die twice. When you step away from the dance world you lose the safety bubble you have been so accustomed to and for such a long time. A small part of you and your identity will be left behind and you will need to start afresh which is incredibly daunting. But be brave! Don’t stay in dance because of this fear, most if not all dancers, fear the thought of failure (myself included!). I quit at the age of 26 and despite it being one of the scariest things I've ever had to do, now, at 29, I am finally in a happy place where I've found a new purpose again coincidentally back in dance so be true to yourself and have the confidence to do what will make you truly happy.