Royce Russell is a bit of a perfectionist; he says his imperfect body and feet have made him that way.
“My foot doesn’t arch naturally the way a really good dancer’s should,” Russell, 18, says. “It never will, and that’s the type of thing that can set you back years.”
Behind his teacher’s back, the Stephens College freshman stands in front of the full-length mirror - arms straight, toes pointed, back arched — attempting to replicate the maneuver just demonstrated for dance class.
“The discipline it takes to get everything right and in alignment and then to perfect it all is unreal,” he says of the art he has followed since childhood.
Russell, 5 feet 11 inches and 280 pounds of “mostly muscle,” as he describes himself, is easy to spot in the dance studio at Stephens: He is the college’s only male dance major.
“I’ve always been an attention grabber,” the Dallas native says. “I like attention and art is my outlet for that.”
Russell credits his mother, Al Russell, for instilling his love of performance.
“I love the arts, and I always seemed to have tickets to one thing or another,” Al Russell says.
“His father and brother didn’t like to go, but Royce did so I would always take him with me,” she says. “He was only about 4 or 5 when we started going, but you could tell he loved it — opera, ballet, theater, all of it.”
Russell says he thinks being exposed to the arts so early and often had a great impact on his life.
“Little experiences like going to the ballet and going to the theater that most kids didn’t do really shaped my love for all kinds of art forms,” he says.
Growing up, Russell was particularly interested in theater and vocal music. That didn’t change until he went to audition for the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, the same school singers Norah Jones and Erykah Badu graduated from.
“I went to the audition with the intention of auditioning for vocal music or theater, but when I got there I thought, ‘I’m already in sweats, so why not give dance a try,” Russell recalls.
The fact that he had never taken a single dance class or lesson was irrelevant.
“I knew I had rhythm and that I could move,” he says. “It was the technical part of dance that I wasn’t so sure about. Besides, I figured that if I failed at dance I could always audition again for theater or music.”
Whatever Russell did in the audition was good enough to get him accepted into the school. The start of his dance career, however, was less than stellar in his mother’s eyes.
“I went to see him dance at the end of his freshman year, and he was horrible,” Al Russell says. “I couldn’t believe he was wasting his time dancing when he was such a talented actor and singer.”
Russell says he worked hard and continued to dance, some days spending more than 12 hours dancing. His senior year, it paid off. He was recruited during a performance at his school by Mary Rotella, a dance instructor at Stephens College. She offered him full financial aid.
Russell says that in addition to the scholarship, he chose Stephens because it was a small school in a Midwestern town — far removed from the big-city environment in which he grew up.
Rotella says she knew she had something special the moment she saw Russell perform.
“I could tell he had a real passion for dance,” she says. “He had this larger than life stage presence and just a magnetic energy about him while he danced.”
She says that after watching him dance, she thought he was perfect for an apprenticeship — a full performing arts scholarship Stephens offers to exceptional male actors, singers and dancers.
“I knew that at the high school he had received a pretty rigorous training in dance because the school is known for their great artists, but Royce had what we in the business call raw talent,” Rotella says. “It was impossible not to see it.”
Russell says his true passion lies in creating movement and dance. “I will never be a professional dancer and I’m fine with that,” he says. “I want my bachelor of fine arts degree so I can teach. I love the freedom and the creativity that choreography affords me.”
His mother agrees.
“I finally realized he was good when I saw the piece he choreographed his senior year,” she says. “The whole time I watched it my mouth was open because I was blown away.”
Although Russell is at Stephens doing what he loves, he acknowledges that his transition has not been easy.
“I feel like I have to work twice as hard to be good, and three times as hard to be accepted,” he says of his limited formal training in dance.
“I’m behind. Some of these girls have been dancing since they were 3. But that just makes me that much more determined to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Russell says that since he began dancing in high school, he has studied several genres of dance — from African to Middle Eastern to salsa.
Jazz is his favorite, he says, but ballet is the reason he sticks with the art and gets up to dance everyday, no matter what.
“I really like ballet, the discipline and the control of it,” he says. “When you master something that has been done for so long, the feeling that you get is just magic. It doesn’t happen to me very often, but when it does, words can’t describe it.”