A Lesson in Fearlessness

By Selby McRae Graepel

 

Fearlessness allows women to accomplish great things. For proof, look no further than Keenan Kampa.

At 17, Kampa, a Washington D.C. native, packed her bags and made ballet history when she joined the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia—a rare honor for an American dance student—after receiving an invitation to study there upon being singled out during a master class with Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet. Her career has embodied the essence of fearlessness, paired with consistent hard work, ever since.

Growing up, Kampa often watched videos of the great Russian dancers. “I think that is how I learned to see ballet,” she says when I chat with her via phone. Her former dance instructor at the Reston Conservatory Ballet, Julia Cziller Redick, exhibited a very hands-on approach to dance, where it felt like “creative playtime,” Kampa says. “We learned about the theory of dance, and we talked about technique. It was a very safe place, so you just were never afraid. You were fearless to try everything.”

One day, after the aforementioned master class taught at the famous Kennedy Center in D.C., Kampa was pulled aside by Ballet Master Gennady Selutsky from the Kirov Ballet (now Mariinsky Theatre) in St. Petersburg, Russia and offered a position at the esteemed Vaganova Academy. She accepted.

“I called my mom, and she was like, ‘I guess you’re going to Russia next year.’”

Her deep love for the art of ballet carried her through those first tough yet accomplishment-filled years in Russia. “The experience not only shaped me as a dancer, but it also affected me as a person. It really made me grow up fast. But as a person going through something difficult, you come out more confident,” she says.

Kampa attended the academy from 2007 to 2010. In that time, she performed the lead role of Masha in The Nutcracker while on tour in Italy, and reprised the role at the Mariinsky Theatre in Russia, making her the first foreigner to dance this role. She danced with the Mariinsky until 2014.

“After about five years there I was really missing family and company and conversation and a personal life,” she explains. This was a leap of faith, to be sure, but a fearless one that led her to her next big project. Says Kampa, “If you are feeling like you need to go in a different direction, you are feeling that for a reason.”

Most recently, Kampa lent her talents to Michael Damian’s feature film, High Strung, which hit theaters in April 2016. “The opportunity for High Strung fell into my lap,” Kampa says. “I was very lucky.”

After seeing an interview with Kampa that aired on The Today Show during the Sochi Olympics, Damian invited her to read for the film, ultimately landing her the lead role of Ruby. “It was a total learning experience, but it was a blast. Especially coming from Russia, it was a breath of fresh air,” she says. “Working every day on set was fun and enjoyable.”

When the film wrapped, Kampa decided to continue exploring the world of film and working stateside, so she moved to Los Angeles where she now lives with her husband. Yet ballet continues to keep her on her toes.

“I have this body for X amount of years,” she says. “As I get older, it is not going to do what I want it to do. I need to have something to wake up to in the morning. I need to feel at the end of the day that I’ve worked really hard. For me, I have to have ballet. I think if I didn’t have it, I would fall into a rut. I would get off track. Keeping discipline in my life keeps me [feeling] fresh and exciting.”

What advice does Kampa have for women pursuing a career in the arts? Her message is simple: Never stop working hard.

“If you don’t have an ultimate goal, you’re going to get lost along the way. It is really important to keep persevering and to be your own brand. Keep your instruments sharp, so when an opportunity hits, you are prepared.” ★

Selby McRae Graepel is an alumna of Ballet Mississippi and the Hamilton College Dance Department. She also danced with Triskelion Arts in Brooklyn, N.Y. She currently works as a senior account executive at MP&F Public Relations in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, Brittany Spaniel puppy, and pet hedgehog.