Keenan Kampa is an international ballet dancer, model and now actress after landing a major role in the movie High Strung.
Birthday: 3rd Feb, 1989
Famous for: Actress, Model, Dancer
Keenan Kampa grew up in the Washington DC area, Keenan started Ballet dance training under the direction of Julia Cziller Redick, at the Reston Conservatory Ballet. At the age of 14 Keenan attended summer ballet programs, and was offered full time study at prestigious dance schools such as American Ballet Theatre’s JKO, and Boston Ballet.
Keenan chose to remain home and continue her studies with Mrs. Redick at the Conservatory. Because of this more traditional route Keenan was able to study ballet, focus on her education, and perform in many Musical Theatre productions with Gonzaga College High School.
In 2006 Keenan was awarded a gold medal in the USA National Youth Ballet competition, and won the Russian Pointe Model Search award. Keenan was a semi-finalist at the Prix de Lausanne International ballet competition in Switzerland in 2007.
That same year she was a participant in the Kennedy Center’s Master Class Series, and attended a class taught by Ballet Master Gennady Selutsky from the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. At the end of the class, Keenan was shocked when she was pulled aside by Mr. Selutsky, and asked if she would come and study at the world famous Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet was established in 1738. Graduates include many of the world’s most famous dancers, who Keenan had idolized as a child, growing up watching old Kirov ballet movies with Mrs. Redick.
Keenan attended the academy from 2007 – 2010. Upon graduation Keenan received the unprecedented honor of being awarded a full Russian Diploma, as opposed to the less prestigious diploma reserved for foreign students. After graduation Keenan returned to the United States and danced two years with the Boston Ballet. She then revisited Russia and won a role in the Marinski Theatre to start in 2012.
Kampa has modelled for various brands including the face of the 2013 International Campaign for G Star Raw, AG Jeans, The Ballerina Project, Ballet Zaida.
Keenan Kampa won a major role as Ruby in the movie High Strung planned for release in 2016.
*Photo credits provided in references section below where possible. View a list of photographers here.
17: Were you always interested in ballet or did you do other kinds of dance also?
Keenan Kampa: In terms of dance, yeah, just ballet. That’s really what I love. The type of ballet that I do it super classical Russian-style, so it worked perfectly with what I ended up doing in Russia.
17: Did you experience culture shock when you went to St. Petersburg?
Keenan: Absolutely. Even when I come back to the United States on break, that’s a culture shock. It’s so different. Everything in Russia is much harder. First of all, when I got there I didn’t speak any Russian. The people act differently. They’re really nice and they’re friendly, but they don’t smile a lot and they’re not going to be bubbly and open like Americans are. Once you get to know them they can be nice, but when you go out in the street or the grocery store, no one ever smiles at you. The workload of the school was a shock, because I hadn’t been used to dancing for 11 hours a day and 6 days a week. So that was one of the hardest things was to get my body acclimated.
17: That’s a lot of training! Is that really different from what you did in the States?
Keenan: At my school, everyone would go to regular lessons and then dance was an after school activity, where you come to ballet at night. So, to come from that and then be thrown into a school where that’s all you did all day long 6 days a week is a lot. And you don’t come home from Christmas, you don’t come home for New Years, you don’t come home for any holidays.
17: Did you start studying Russian when you when there? Or do people have an interest in speaking English?
Keenan: Almost no one speaks English. It was complete immersion, but they give us Russian language classes every morning. The one thing that’s really difficult about that is that my Russian teacher doesn’t speak English! But after being there, it’s gotten better and I can speak it. I’m not fluent, but I can understand everything.
17: As a dancer, what were some of the challenges to get where you are now
Keenan: Always staying motivated, and knowing that I have to be my biggest advocate. I have to be the one that works so hard, no one is going to be able to do anything for me. Because ballet is so physical, your body either does it or it doesn’t, so you’re in charge of training your body that way. There are no shortcuts. If you don’t do the work, it’s going to show. Plus, there are going to be teachers who are just awful, and sometimes other girls who’ll say things to you. Some of the teachers can be really brutal. One of the hardest things it to just be above it, to keep an open mind and not get caught up in all the drama, to stay focused and don’t let it bother you. There are so many challenges with ballet, those are just some of the highlights.
Keenan Kampa’s first time taking ballet class was kind of an accident.
While chatting with Dance Informa in Long Beach, CA, recently, Kampa divulged, “My first ballet class actually started with me in a stroller!” Apparently, her mom and her were waiting for her older sister outside of her ballet class when Kampa, age 3, secretly unstrapped herself and “waddled” into the classroom. Her mom, who had looked away for a moment, was surprised to find her gone.
Kampa laughed as she talked about the incident. “My mom apparently started freaking out. When she ran into the studio she started apologizing to the teacher but the teacher said, ‘No, no, no. Let her stay. She wants to be in here.’ So I stayed and that was technically my first class, even though I was much too young to have recollection of it.”
Keenan Kampa is one of four children in her family.
She has three sisters, an older one and two that are younger. “The youngest is adopted from Kazakhstan, so she’s actually a good 10 years younger than me. We’re all very close though,” she shared. While she grew up dancing with her older and immediately younger sister, she’s the only one who “kept at it.” The oldest is now a poet and the younger one is in culinary arts.
She’s really into nutrition and healthy living.
Right after “ballerina” and “actor”, Kampa describes herself on her Instagram as “Vegan.” She loves to eat healthy and ride her bike everywhere, a habit she picked up in Russia. She’s so into health that she’s actually pursing a degree in sports nutrition right now. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised then when she said her favorite rehearsal snack is Elemental Superfood Bars, which she described as “raw, buckwheat granola bars.”
When in Russia training, she came to appreciate the notorious Russian ballet masters and their infamous toughness.
“The accent, the language and the frequent screaming is scary. They totally earn their reputations there!” Kampa confessed. “But their toughness is because in Russia, ballet is a very serious art form. It’s not just something you do because you want to and it’s fun, it’s because it’s a historic art form that’s been preserved for generations. And they intend to keep it that way. There is a degree of excellence they expect you to achieve…”
She continued, “The thing you have to realize to make it is that their intention is usually very, very good. That intention and cruelty is actually for your own good – or at least that’s how they see it. So I actually learned to really, really appreciate their way of teaching.”
Kampa is both a strong turner and jumper.
“I’ve always thought I was a stronger turner because I’d always be spinning. But then when I moved to Russia jumping was one of the things they always looked to me for as one of my strengths. I honestly can’t say that I enjoy one or the other more,” she said.
She likes to wear gauze inside her pointe shoes.
But depending on the repertoire she’s doing, she might wear Bunheads Ouch Pouches or tape her toes with “some silicon Dr. Scholl’s.”
Physically, she’s usually stronger on her left side.
“It depends on what I’m doing, but in general, my right side has always been more subtle and agile and the left side has always been stronger and supportive,” she explained. “So it’s easier to jump off my left leg and turn on my left leg but the right goes higher.”
She combatted that in Russia by trying out various exercises. “I spent a lot of time looking at myself and adjusting. There were tons of exercises I did to help compensate for the weaker muscles,” she said. She used a Pilates ring often and did a lot of inner-thigh and back exercises to help get her arabesque higher.
She’s fallen onstage “a lot.”
When asked about her most embarrassing onstage moments, she laughs. Her stories are proof that even the best ballerinas still stumble sometimes.
She also notes the popularity of pranks between dancers, especially during long show runs. She recalls one time where her partner purposefully unsnapped the back of her costume.
“I was bowing with my partner in Russia and he took my costume and undid the clasp as a prank – we were always playing pranks on one another. I had to bow very carefully, needless to say. It’s funny in a company how many dancers play pranks, especially when you’re in a run of say 45 Nutcrackers.”
Her favorite work is what led her to love acting.
When asked about her favorite work, she recalled a premier ballet that was set on her at the Mariinsky. “It was based on the Oscar Wilde play of La Salome, which is about the Biblical story of John The Baptist, Salome and King Herod. I got to play Salome and the whole process of having that role set on me was really interesting,” she said. “To play that complex of a character where you go back and forth between loving and hating her was interesting. She’s both innocent and brutal, which made her portrayal challenging.”
This role was what revealed her love for acting, Kampa divulged. “It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had on stage. I actually started crying at the end because it’s so moving. She ends up dying at the end and it was such a quiet moment, such a distinct memory now. I felt so connected to the audience. I really sensed that they were there with me in that moment…”
Keenan Kampa’s dance idol is Sylvie Guillem.
“I love her so much. She was such an important ballerina. She’s one of the first ballerinas to really show some of the extreme things that we can do with our bodies. She’s so creative.”
Her grandfather was her best friend.
“He just passed in January. He left me a ring and this necklace. I wear them all the time. He was in the Marine Core,” she said.
If she wasn’t a dancer or actor, Keenan Kampa would be…?
“When I was kid I thought that if I wasn’t going to be a professional ballerina, I was going to be an athlete in an Olympic Decathlon or a major league baseball pitcher. I love anything athletic, I really do!”
Keenan Kampa’s role as Ruby inthe High Strungmovie hit close to home.
As a dancer who studied in a big city far from her family, Kampa can sympathize with her character, Ruby, in High Strung in more ways that one.
“Looking back at where I’ve been with dance, I can see a lot of myself in her. I can see how I’ve grown and matured since then into a more confident and assured artist. It was interesting to remember that age, where you’re choosing to step out and really reveal yourself as an artist,” she said.
She describes Ruby as an “optimistic” girl who still has the world at her feet. “She’s completely in love with the art form. She’s a beacon of hope and light,” Kampa said.
Her favorite part of working on High Strungwas the community of dancers she got to work with.
“The whole experience was so much fun! I made such wonderful friends and it was such a fantastic experience,” she exclaimed. “Even for the weeks we were deep in rehearsal, it felt like a party! Just to look at each person there and see their individual talents was really cool. I think this is a really unique and special movie that will touch many different people.”
She hinted that dancers should especially look forward to the subway dance scene and the finale – two of her favorites.
YOU MADE HISTORY BY BECOMING THE FIRST EVER AMERICAN TO DANCE IN THE MARIINSKY BALLET, HOW DID THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?
When the invitation came from the school, back when I was 17, it was completely unexpected; I never, in a million years, would have thought I’d be invited to dance in the Mariinsky. It was mind-blowing. I keep having to remind myself while I’m dancing that I’m actually there – it doesn’t feel real, and it’s been nearly a year. When I was in high school I decided to prioritise dance over everything else, including a social life. I really focused on it, everything else took a back seat. Luckily it’s paid off.
DID BEING THE FIRST AMERICAN IN THE MARIINSKY MAKE YOU MORE COMPETITIVE, DID YOU FEEL LIKE YOU HAD SOMETHING TO PROVE?
I’ve had to face opposition, definitely. I think that anytime you put yourself out there and do something new, people will criticise you, so it’s been stressful coming to terms with that, but mostly I’m comfortable enough with myself to push through the tough times.
TALK US THROUGH A TYPICAL DAY.
We have class every morning from 11am, so I get to the theatre at around 10am, and the first rehearsal starts at midday. I then have rehearsals throughout the whole day until the evening when I have a performance. It’s a full day; I don’t go home until after midnight. The hours have been something I have had to get used to quickly, we have unions in the States to regulate how much you train and dance, but Western rules don’t apply here.
BALLET IS A HUGELY DEMANDING ACTIVITY, HOW DO YOU KEEP MOTIVATED AND FOCUSED?
Ballet equals stress – mentally, emotionally and physically. It pulls so much out of you, so in order to just get through each day you have to keep things in perspective. I try to read the news every day to keep myself grounded. I think I’ve got huge problems, but then I think, “So what if my knees are not straight, there are people starving in Africa.”
IS IT DIFFICULT TO HAVE TO KEEP SUCH A STRONG MINDSET?
It’s really difficult. With ballet you tend to take everything personally, but you have to constantly fight with your own demons in order to not let it get you down. It’s a constant battle.
HOW DO YOU COPE WITH THAT?
I try to find a silliness to ballet. I understand that it’s not the be all and end all, we’re here for other reasons. It’s so easy to get sucked in and feel like ballet is all encompassing, but you have to keep a strong mindset.
HAVE YOU SEEN IT TAKE OVER DANCERS?
Absolutely. And that’s one of the things that keeps me motivated, it’s like a lesson. I don’t want that to be me.
WHEN YOU MOVED TO RUSSIA YOU WERE STILL A TEENAGER, WHAT WAS THE CULTURE SHOCK LIKE?
It was total culture shock, you wouldn’t believe it. Everything was different, I couldn’t understand a single word and nobody spoke English. The first year I was there I hardly opened my mouth, I just kept listening and trying to figure out what was going on. Needless to say I didn’t make a lot of friends. But once I became more familiar I did start to appreciate the culture and started to understand how much I had previously taken for granted. As an American, I was used to having a lot, and I appreciated everything so much more when I was forced to live without it. The whole experience of moving to Russia changed me as a person, not just my dancing.
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