Sometimes the need to be creative flows so strongly through your veins that one will find a way to create no matter what.  Grandma Moses is famous for the paintings that she created after she turned 78.  Before that, she created art through her embroidery.  But after developing arthritis in her hands, she had to give it up and started painting as a creative outlet.  One has to wonder if she would have taken up painting if arthritis didn’t develop. Which leads me to my next Starting Over interview.  Rebecca’s first love was ballet, but injuries led her to find a new way to express her creativity.

Can you please introduce yourself, tell us what you do and where you do it?

I’m Rebecca Moon Ruark, and I live and write from my home near Annapolis, Maryland, that I share with my husband and our twin eight-year-old boys.

At 19, you left home to pursue a ballet career with the Richmond Ballet in Virginia.  Can you tell us what that was like as a 19-year-old to make such a big move?

I started taking ballet lessons at five. By 16, I was studying with the School of the Cleveland Ballet and spending as much time in the ballet studio as I was in school. I began auditioning for companies at 17, and at 19 I attended a summer dance program at the Richmond Ballet, after which they invited me to stay on as a trainee, for which I received a small stipend. I hoped I was on my way to making apprentice and then full company member, but fate had other plans.

For aspiring professional ballet dancers, all the moves are big moves. You train hard through your high school years and hope to get signed on somewhere before your body starts to quit. Most ballet dancers keep auditioning and moving around a lot, through what would be their college years, until they rise in the ranks from apprentice to company member and eventually to soloist, maybe even principal. If you’re lucky, you find a company to settle down with and dance out your days, until age 35, 40 if you’re very healthy. All in all, it’s a pretty transient lifestyle, but I knew that. I always felt at home in the studio, so I made friends easily in Richmond. My parents were happy I was pursuing my chosen profession and drove me and my boxes of tights, leotards and pointe shoes the eight hours south to Virginia, where I would end up living for the next 11 years.

Soon after, you were injured.  You must have been devastated at the time to realize you would no longer dance.  Was there a grieving process that you needed to go through?

I remember my mom crying over the phone when I told her I was tired of hurting and ready to quit. I remember her saying she’d always imagined I would become a professional ballet dancer. If I didn’t feel grief at the time, I felt a great deal of guilt. My family had made a major investment in me—not just pointe shoe money, but so many hours spent carting me to and from classes, for so many years.

Mine was a common injury: a stress fracture in my leg, caused by jumping on un-sprung floors. I’d experienced pain plenty as a young dancer, tendonitis in my ankles and hips, pulled this-and-that and bloodied toes–but nothing that I couldn’t work through with a little ice and Advil. This was different: I visited the company doctor and did the physical therapy, but the injury had me sitting on the sidelines, watching class and rehearsals, which was frustrating. Meanwhile, my neighbors in my apartment building were attending college, hauling home interesting-looking art projects, talking about books they were studying, going on dates—all the things I’d been missing out on. I was ready to stop acting out stories that had already been written and start writing my own.

You were so young at the time.  Did you go back home after the injury to figure out your next steps?

In this era of helicopter parenting, it seems strange, but after living on my own—no dorm, no check-ins—I didn’t consider moving back home. With no training, other than dance training, I applied for a job waiting tables in a Richmond hotel restaurant, bought a few pairs of black pants and a few white shirts at a thrift store, and went to work. One night, thirty dollars in tips in my purse, I was mugged while cycling home. That frightening experience was enough to jolt me into making another change. A dancer friend of mine living in Phoenix needed a roommate; I wasted no time moving across the country by myself, again.

You decided to attend college and study creative writing.  Was writing something you were also interested in while you were growing up dancing?  Or did you need to find a new creative outlet after your dance career was over?

My stint in Phoenix didn’t last long, just long enough for me to see the Grand Canyon, get up close and personal with a scorpion, and become very tired of waiting tables. I knew I had to make college happen—I didn’t know what for—but I knew I wanted it to happen back in Richmond.

All my floundering as a young adult was giving me inspiration and material for writing, but I didn’t know it yet. I’d always been a good student and tried my hand (and failed) at a couple short stories in high school. But it wasn’t until after I started college at Virginia Commonwealth University at 21 that I realized I could express myself creatively—and maybe even make a living—by writing. My experience with ballet felt like expressing the creative vision of another: classical ballet training is beautiful mimicry. In contrast, I felt set free—and powerful—by writing. After receiving my bachelor’s degree in English from V.C.U., I stayed on to earn my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with a concentration in fiction.

Rebecca and her husband on UnfoldAndBegin.com

Do you still practice ballet or is that completely behind you now?

I made a pretty clean break from ballet but not from dance. In Cleveland, we were trained in Flamenco, a dance form that I love and that gets better with age. I took a Flamenco class in college (and can still work a pair of castanets) and co-taught a ballroom dance class at the campus gym. I also did some Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art with dance elements in it. When my boys were toddlers, we would waltz around the living room before dinner. It’s still hard for me to sit completely still; I can’t watch dance without my body instinctively moving along.

You’re now a writer.  Do you find there are similarities between dance and writing? And can you share what you’re working on and where we can find your work?

Both art forms require bravery. But writing isn’t as isolating. The ballet world is very insular. Writing, on the other hand, can take you anywhere—from your chair. I wear a couple different hats as a writer. I work as a freelance content and copywriter for universities and health systems and am privy to inspiring stories of innovation, discovery, and healing. On my own time, I write fiction. In college, I fell in love with American literature and am always looking for new ways to interrogate the American Dream through my writing. I have completed a manuscript for a historical novel set during WWII in California that explores the restrictions, evacuations, and internment experienced by Italians in the U.S. during that period; I’ll be querying agents about it this fall. My short fiction is largely set in my native Ohio and the larger Rust Belt, which is rife with story. You can read—and hear me read—my story Recruit at Flock’s site.

I also blog as Rust Belt Girl and post book reviews, author interviews, essays, writing advice and other musings. Only one-and-a-half years in, as a blogger, and I’ve had such fun discovering my more conversational voice and a supportive community for it. Blogging has helped me to get “out there” more. I’ll be doing a creative reading and will sit on a writers’ publishing panel and talk about the blog at Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival in Ohio, Sept. 21 and 22.

Looking back to when you made the transition from dancer to college student, is there anything that you wish you’d done differently?

I was quite shy and hesitant to ask for advice from my ballet instructors. The ballet world I knew was not one that valued free and open discourse among the ranks. So I didn’t feel like I had advisers during what I would come to think of as the end of my adolescence and the beginning of my adulthood. I should have found someone at the ballet or at the university to talk with. Now that I write for universities, I know how much help they can provide to young people who don’t know how their talents might align with various career paths. Today, someone would suggest career—or even emotional—counseling; I relied on good friends, too many cigarettes, and listening to broody Sarah McLachlan music late into the night.

Rebecca and her sons on UnfoldAndBegin.com

Did you get any advice or help from others while embarking on this new path?  What is the best advice or assistance that you got along the way?

My parents were very permissive and forgiving. They helped me with a flight from Cleveland to Phoenix in the August heat and never once said, “you must be nuts.” When I wanted to move back to Richmond, only months later, my mom flew out to Phoenix in December to meet me, and we had the best visit, saw the sights, and flew back to Cleveland in time for Christmas. I will have to remember all this when my boys are 20 and acting nuts—to stand back and let them mess up if that’s what they need. A little failure is character-building for everybody involved.

And to go along with that question, what advice do you have for someone who must change course because of an injury or other circumstances outside of their control?

Ask for help, outside of broody 90s tunes. And let yourself cry. Yes, it’s wonderful to be flexible and to be able to pivot to whatever’s coming next, after an injury or something else throws us off course. But I don’t think our primitive brains and the rest of our bodies can register real resolution as quickly as our fast-paced society seems to think they should.

You’re right; letting go of an identity requires space to grieve. Instead of allowing myself that, I got caught up in next steps, and the feelings I should have expressed about quitting dance got rolled up into romantic relationships and my relationship with my mom, which carried a lot of grief with it, not just because she was my biggest fan but because she battled breast cancer during that time. I know myself better now than I did then, and a lot of that is thanks to writing; I’m definitely one who needs to write to a place of knowing.


What an important lesson, allowing yourself time to grieve for what might have been, not what society dictates but what’s right for you.  To connect with Rebecca follow the below links.

Lit Youngstown Literary Festival  September 21 & 22nd.

Read more interviews with fabulous women who have gone through a change in the Starting Over series.