Román’s Winding Path
I met Román Baca while I was coaching a fellowship cohort for Veterans for Global Leadership. His work history illuminates an interesting case of someone drawn to serve others in the military and also pursuing his love of dance and choreography. Román’s world of work has moved from active-duty military service, the breadth of roles in dance, and now to academia. Román, 48, splits his time between NYC and London and holds a BA in Performing Arts, Master of Fine Arts in Choreography, and is currently pursuing a PhD.
What is your current title/employers? I am the Founder and Artistic Director of Exit12 Dance Company, a 501(c)(3) not for profit that tells stories of war through the performing arts, I am a junior research scientist with the Geneva Foundation, doing research on military medics, I am a Project Lead at Bravo 22, an organization that delivers arts experiences to the UK military community, and I am an occasional lecturer at York St. John University.
*Photography Credit: Rachelle Neville
In two - three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
I have the privilege, most days, of developing, planning, and leading arts experiences for people who have experienced war, whether those are members of the military, their families, or people who live in the countries where the war happened/is happening. A good deal of that work is either on the computer, planning, or communicating. I also spend time talking with stakeholders, interviewing individuals for research, working with partners, and fundraising. Finally, the best part of my job, I get to lead arts workshops with people from all walks of life and from all over the world, some who have experienced trauma, in order to allow others to see the world through their eyes and imagination, work towards healing and peacebuilding, and to create discussions about critical issues. A few weeks ago, I led a three-day art experience with 15 UK members of the military community. They visited the National Gallery in London, and then they were able to participate in a painting workshop with a professional painter. I feel that I am closely aligned to this work because of my background in the military and the arts, and because of that, days like those are the best days.
What did you want to be when you were eight?
When I was eight, I think I wanted to be a firefighter or police officer - I wanted to be a helper.
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
My mother started chasing her dream at the age of 40, and now owns a gourmet foods company in New Mexico. I learned from my mother the qualities of hard work, the ability to talk to anyone about anything, and the drive and determination to work towards a dream. My father amazed me with his ability to do almost anything with his hands, from rebuilding old VW bugs to reshingling his own roof. I learned from my father that anything can be learned, if I put in the time. My grandfather was a U.S. Army Korean War Veteran and didn’t talk much about his service, but a few years ago he started to tell me his own war stories. I learned from my grandfather the importance of service. My grandmother made the best tortillas, pinto beans, and tamales. I learned from my grandmother that love, hospitality, and food connect people in a way nothing else can… and I can make pretty good tortillas.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
In 2013 I was put on a Performance Improvement Plan when I was working for a veteran’s nonprofit. When I met with my manager, they told me that I needed to identify the things that gave me energy and pursue that. So, I transitioned from that organization to become the Artistic Director of a pre-professional ballet school and ballet company. It was one of the hardest and most challenging job transitions I have made, yet I landed in a role that I excelled at in every way, a role that gave me energy, and a role I loved. I loved it because I was able to have a positive impact on young people through art and I was able to create incredible performances for the community where we were based. Some of the youngest ballerinas who used to sneak into my office and play on my computer during Nutcracker rehearsals are now entering more professional dance training or university programs in order to start making an impact in the world, and that’s amazing.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
I trained as a ballet dancer and worked as a professional for a few years before I stepped away from it to join the United States Marine Corps. I stepped away because, at the time, I felt like being a professional dancer was doing little tangible good in the world by performing the same huge ballets night after night. I thought the Marines would give me the training, tools, and opportunities to help people, and make a positive impact in the world. I served for eight years culminating in a deployment to Fallujah, Iraq in 2005. During my time as a Marine, I still found opportunities to coach and teach dance. When I left the Corps, I did a few technical jobs before finding that the things that I was passionate about were veterans affairs and art.
Why did you pivot?
There have been many pivots in my career, mostly in and out of the arts. I have pivoted into the arts because that is where my passion is, and where I think I can have the most impact in the world. I have pivoted out several times because of the way that the arts are sometimes perceived by the world, as being frivolous, childish, or not a real career. I have served as both a soldier and an artist, and I used to believe that by carrying a weapon I could have a positive impact in the world. I have come to believe that in many ways, my role as an artist is not frivolous or childish, and I have actually made it a real career that impacts real people in positive ways, and I’ve made that impact in some of the same places I served as a Marine, without carrying a weapon.
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
I think the skill that has been the most portable is the ability to communicate inspirationally and humanistically. Storytelling has moved my career forward at crucial moments, raised funding when we needed it, and has been able to open people’s eyes to the experiences of others. One thing that I still struggle with, that always seems brand new, is the constant admin that my roles require.
What was the hardest part about making a career pivot?
Each time I have made a career pivot it has felt like jumping off a cliff into a pool of water below, not knowing what lies under the surface. I can say that I have trusted in myself, my willingness to learn, and my work ethic to help me tread water until I can swim - but the actual leap is always heart-stopping.
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
Maya Angelou said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I have heard this twice in the past two days and I think it speaks to two things that I try to remember, that the way I treat people is so important, and that at the end of the day, no matter what position a person holds or who they are, or think they are, we are all just people. So, I try not to be intimidated or scared to talk to others, like my mom taught me, but honestly, especially recently, that has been the hardest lesson to keep practicing.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
My mother used to tell me to do what I love, and the money would come. That phrase is much harder to realize than I could have ever anticipated. The important thing that I strive to remember is that as long as my work is having a positive impact on at least one person then I am doing what I was meant to be doing. So, as you are making a change, look for that one person and bring them with you (in spirit, of course). The money may come, but money comes and goes, impact lasts much longer.
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
My wife and my mentors. My wife has always been my greatest support and my greatest champion. The times that she has said, “let’s do it”, from running a ballet company to moving to London, she has always pushed me in positive directions. My mentors, from all disciplines all over the world, have been the eyes that have seen in between everything and have been able to help me readjust my path, put wind in my sails, or connect me to others that have been able to help - mentors are invaluable. And then there are the undying Marine qualities of determination and perseverance - sometimes to a fault - that never die.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life?
The hardest thing I’ve had to overcome in my professional life is actually two things, but they are closely related. First, realizing that I don’t have to be understood or liked by everyone, and to be selective about where I put my energy and effort. Exit12 performed at the famed 92nd St. Y in New York City, bringing our work about veterans to a venue where dance luminaries like Trisha Brown, Martha Graham, and Paul Taylor have performed. After the performance someone told me an audience member remarked during the performance, “I hate veterans.” That struck me. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see the work for what it was - a window into the human side of the veteran. It took me a long time to realize that they were one person in a sold-out audience - a blip that may never understand the work we do and why we do it, and that’s ok. Second, understanding that the abilities, talent, and qualities of those that I admire are not necessarily things that I have to learn, acquire, or emulate in my life. I have recently started working in academia and the number of people that can rattle off quotes from philosophers and writers and can instantly develop an argument or understanding astounds me. It has taken me a while to shake off the feelings of inadequacy and envy, feelings that I would have that ability if I had done something different in my educational or career path. Instead, I have remembered that I have an education, knowledge, and a career that is much different, is still valuable, and is unique to me - and that’s ok.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life?
I would like to teach applied theater, or theater that embraces a wide range of practices that share an intentionality to provoke or shape social change, at the university level. It is something that I have done in small roles both in the U.S. and UK, and I have found a love of teaching. My work, spanning the theater world and the veteran world, has a unique way of connecting people to the arts. I believe students at the university level can benefit from learning that they can connect elements of their being, in unique ways, in order to excel in their lives, and impact the lives of others.
What social media links, if any, might you like to share in the piece?
LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/romanbaca/
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/roman.baca
Instagram - @romanfbaca
Twitter - I’m not that active here, but it’s also @romanfbaca