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Profile: Derek Dunn

We are very pleased to be able to post our first original interview. If you enjoy it please leave a comment. Without your feedback we won't know it's worth creating more of these.

Profile: Derek Dunn

This is a story which beings like many others: a young boy sees his sister dance, is desperate to learn the secret to the moves and insists on being signed up for ballet.

In this version of the story, that boy is Derek Dunn and he has become the finest young dancer in America. He has the prizes to prove it: the Junior Grand Prix at YAGP 2008 (America’s most prestigious competition for young dancers), the Junior Gold Medal at YAGP 2010 and the only American to win a medal at this year’s USA International Ballet Competition. And he is only 15.

Derek Dunn winning the bronze medal
at the 2010 USA IBC.

Derek has just completed his first year at the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia and kindly agreed to give up some of his hard-earnt holiday to speak to us.

When did you first become serious about dancing?

My sister was my first big inspiration in dance. She used to come home from her lessons and dance around the house and I would always say, ‘Wow, how do you do that?’ and ‘I want to know how you do that, too.’ When I was 6 I asked my parents to sign me up for dance class and that’s how it began.

I liked ballet straight away but I started to take it more seriously once I decided to enter YAGP 2008. My teacher and I both thought it would be a good challenge but I knew it would take a lot of preparation. That made me really want to start focussing on ballet.

How did your friends react?

When I was a younger a lot of boys in my grade would come up to me and say, ‘Why do you dance?’ or ‘Only girls are meant to dance’. People just don’t understand what ballet is for guys. You obviously have to be athletic to be a successful ballet dancer because there’s so much jumping - and you have to be so strong, too.

I think because ballet is so controlled and looks flawless, other guys just don’t realize what it takes. In my mind, ballet is technically a sport for the boys because there’s so much for them to do. But it’s also an art form because you have to make it look effortless.

So, at first, I ignored them. I thought, ‘Right, I’m not listening to them. This is stupid, they obviously don’t know what they’re talking about.’ At other times, my sister would stick up for me and tell them how ignorant they were being.

The big change came when I was in 6th grade (aged 12). We had a school talent show and I danced. Once the guys saw me dance they were like, ‘Oh, that’s what really happens.’ They actually came up to me and said things like, ‘That was really good’, ‘That was so cool’, ‘How do you do that’ and blah blah blah.

Derek beating all the girls at YAGP 2008, aged 13.
Photo by Siggul (Visual Arts Masters).

Is performing the most important thing?

Yes. Everything leads up to performing so it’s definitely the most important part of it.

My first ballet teacher was really good before my early performances. She would come back stage with me and always had something to say that would calm me down. She would say, ‘You’re not going out on stage to be judged, you’re doing this for you. Don’t let the thought of people watching you and judging you ruin what you’re doing. Remember, you’re doing this because you love it and not because you’re trying to impress people.’

I don’t have a specific routine before going on stage but I do give myself a barre to warm up. That's one thing I do everytime before I perform. Other than that, if it’s YAGP, for the first dance I would just do whatever beforehand and, if the dance went well, I would try to repeat the same schedule that I did that day. I’m kind of like that - I have to do everything the same if it goes well.

This one went well:
Derek's prize winning classical solo at YAGP 2008. Breathtaking.
Video with thanks to Visual Arts Masters.

Who or what motivates you through your training?

I really don’t know what motivates me so much. I guess I like it so much - it’s just what I want to be doing. I try to set goals for myself, and I keep pushing myself until I finally reach those goals. I want to get to where I want to be and be the type of dancer that I think I can be.

My role model in dance is Rolando Sarabia. When he was younger he was such an amazing dancer. I haven’t seen many videos of him recently but the videos of him from when he was younger are absolutely amazing. (Click here to see an awesome video of Sarabia in the studio.)

One major person that inspires me is my grandfather. He was such a kind-hearted and likeable person and was also extremely intelligent. I always knew that if I had a question about something, he would know the answer. At times I think back and wish I would have gotten to know him better, because I know that a lot more of my questions could have been answered - if I only would have taken the time and talked to him. It was amazing to me how he knew certain things you would never even expect someone to know.

Derek in the studio.

What do you wish you'd known when you started?

One thing that I wish I knew when I first started was that leaving home would be a part of training. I did not know that I was going to have to go away to Philadelphia and be separated from my family. I knew that one day that would be a part of life, but I was not expecting it to be so soon. Although, I was very fortunate to be able to come home often and see my family.

If I had to give one piece of advice to other boy dancers, it would be this: Do not listen to the people that try to put you down. There will most likely be people out there who say mean things out of ignorance. People do not know what ballet is like for boys, so if anything mean is said, then it is said because they do not know what they are talking about. If ballet is something that you love to do, then keep doing it!

My parents always told me that if I loved what I was doing, then they would support me 100%, and I believe that that should be the same for everyone.

Derek aged 10.

If you weren’t doing ballet what would you be doing?

Good question. I’ve always really like stuff that has to do with forensics - CSI type stuff. I find that really, really interesting. I’d have to go to school for a while to do that. But I think that would be really cool if I wasn’t dancing.

I also still really like to do contemporary. Before I went to the Rock School I was trying to decide whether I wanted to do ballet or contemporary. Actually, I still haven’t really made my decision but I’m trying to focus more on ballet right now because even to do contemporary you have to have a lot of ballet training.

Derek's contempoaray solo
at the 2010 USA IBC.

But ideally, in 10 years time, I think I do want to be in a ballet company and I would have to say I really want to be in American Ballet Theatre (ABT). I’ve seen a lot of their performances and they’re such an amazing company. Also, they’re based in New York City and I love New York City. To get to live there would be such a cool experience.

Is there anything you dislike about dance?

I don’t think so. I get very frustrated with myself when something doesn’t work out but I think with anything you do you are going to find things which are difficult you get frustrated with. I have high standards and put a lot of pressure on myself.

If I am frustrated with one certain movement I just have to stop trying it. There’s a million things you can do in ballet - you can’t just get stuck on one little move.

I’ve never been through a phase where I wanted to give up but this year has been like the biggest year for me. I’ve danced every day this year but before I only danced 3 or 4 days a week. I’m dancing like 3 times as much as that now. Because I’m dancing so much I put even more pressure on myself but I know I don’t want to give up - this is what I want to do.

Derek and his partner Lindsey perform a fun routine at Onstage New York.

Many thanks to Derek and his parents for making this interview possible.


  1. Derek is amazing, he is the best dancer of any age that ever lived and he is my biggest inspiration :)

  2. I go to Edna Lee Dance Studio and have admired him for many years. He is amazing!

  3. Absolutely inspiring! This young man is strong, confident, and had supportive parents who encouraged him to pursue what he loved! Every young man, regardless of his talent, should be so lucky!