Q&A with Steven McRae, Principal of the Royal Ballet

Steven McRae is a Principal of the Royal Ballet, married to Elizabeth McRae, also a dancer with the Royal Ballet and father of two young children.
Born in Australia, he started to dance, when he was seven years old. In 2003 he won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne, which earned him a scholarship and made it possible for him to enter the Royal Ballet school in London. He has been invited to be a guest artist with various companies such as the American Ballet Theatre, Tokyo Ballet and the Australian Ballet, to name a few. Not only is he a fantastic dancer, but also a superhero! Steven stars as a character in a Japanese manga as the Ballet Hero.

Besides all his accomplishements, his commitment to his work and family, Steven McRae is also very active on his Instagram (go follow @StevenMcRae_, if you haven't already). His instagram is a wonderful mix of personal photos and a look inside the rehearsal room.

A few weeks ago he asked his followers to send him questions he would answer in a q&a. The questions were great conversation starters and his answers gave interestings insights and lots of information. He tackled topics such as body image, his diet, balancing his career and his family and why he dances.
Below you find his q&a in full. He was kind enough to answer one of Spectacle's question, too. We have not edited any of the answers. You can still find the original on Steven's Instagram.

No. 1. Question from @spectacle_arts ‘Do you think ballet dancers are athletes or artists?
Steven McRae: I recently did a talk at the @royalballetschool and this topic came up. I enforced my belief that dancers are Artists however I believe that dancers need to treat their bodies as if they are athletes. The discipline, routine, dedication, physical as well as the mental pressures are all in line with elite athletes. However, no one can ever put a score next to a dancers’ performance. Art is incredibly subjective which is why I love striving for more both technically and dramatically as each performance is live and therefore alive.

No.2 Question from @rosalind.dancer ‘Have u ever struggled with body image and if so, how did u deal with it?’
YES - The pressures involved with an aesthetic art form can be intense. I was told numerous times that I was too short & that I needed to change my vibrant red hair in order to blend in..... Who wants to blend in was my response! No one is born with the perfect ballet body. I have learnt to make the most of what I have. Sometimes your ‘imperfections’ in someone’s point of view turn out to be a wonderful feature.
Everyday is a quest to be a better version of myself. That is easier said than done sometimes however the challenge is always the fun part.

No.3 Question from @sophie_drake.x ‘How do you control your nerves and deal with pressures before a performance?’
Nerves are a part of performing however they are something we are not taught that much about when training. I have learnt that nerves can be used in an incredibly positive way to help give a performance an extra edge however if not handled correctly nerves can undo so much of the hard work you have put into preparing for the Performance.
Self trust is crucial!
Before the curtain goes up, I always remind myself that no matter what, I will do my best and that I believe I have put the work in in order to be best prepared for that moment.
A lot of pressure that performers feel actually comes from themselves. It is important to take some of that pressure off yourself by accepting that perfection doesn’t exist.....
If a performer appears confidently in control then chances are that the audience will feel relaxed watching you.

No.4 Question from @jahewr ‘Did people tease you growing up because you were a boy who did tap and ballet? How did you deal with it?’
Bullies are unfortunately small minded people who make themselves feel better about themselves by trampling on those around them. Fortunately, the degree of bullying I encountered growing up was quite low. I believe this was due to a few factors. The support of my family never wavered giving me a strong platform to stand on. Also, my love of dance and the desire to pursue my passion outweighed any pathetic comments thrown my way.
A lack of understanding about something can result in people making assumptions. Part of my passion now is introducing people to the world of professional dance and showing them a little insight into what it takes to do what we do.
I don’t have a problem being a Dancer that happens to be Male so the person next to me shouldn’t either?￰

No.5 A reoccurring question from many young dancers: ‘How did you manage your school work with your dance training?’
I started dancing at the age of 7 and by the age of 9 I was already dancing 6 days a week. I remained at a regular academic school throughout my training so I had to learn how to juggle everything very quickly.
My parents were always supportive of my Dance studies however they insisted that I focused on my academics too. If my studies fell behind then my dancing would be cut back. I quickly learnt how to maximise time management.
I strongly believe that energy produces energy and that includes proactive & productive energy. The busier my schedule got the better I got at utilising whatever time I had.
I probably didn’t have your typical childhood as I very rarely went to parties or other events through my own choice. I wanted to dance and that overruled everything!
At school I tried to retain as much information as possible during the day so that I could complete any homework more efficiently because as soon as the school bell rang I was out of the door & into the dance studio! Of course there were the few evenings when I was awake till 3am finishing off an assignment but it was always my choice to dance so much which is why the drive and motivation to do it was always there......

No.6 Question from @meiaponta ‘How do you balance family life with your career?
Finding a healthy work life balance is a constant challenge for everyone. My wife and I do everything we can to be with our children as much as possible however the demands of our profession can make this a challenge at times.
Since having children, I believe my wife and I have become more efficient with our time at work. I feel that I now use my rehearsals more productively.
My passion for my career has actually increased since having children as there is even more of a focus to my work. The children have also helped keep the pressures of my work in perspective.
We are fortunate that our children are able to travel abroad with us when touring which is not only wonderful for my wife and I to have the children by our sides but it is also a wonderful opportunity for our children to develop and experience new worlds too.
I hope that my wife and I will be an example to our children and inspire them to pursue their own dreams in the future. Stepping on stage is one of the most incredible feelings but nothing compares to the time that I spend with my children!

No.7 Question from @dancers_in_training ‘Who was your biggest inspiration whilst you were a young dancer in training?’
My dance teachers ignited a love of dance that I had no idea was inside of me and inspired me to jump head first into the world of dance however my biggest inspiration in early childhood actually came from Motorsport. My father raced cars in Australia & we followed the @nhra Drag Racing series in the USA. 2 drivers in particular displayed incredible determination to succeed against all odds & they continue to have an impact on the way I approach life, John Force & Shirley Muldowney. As I started to learn more about the incredible world of dance, the likes of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Nureyev & Baryshnikov all opened my eyes.
Interestingly, the day I watched a video in Australia of the final Pas de deux of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon performed by Sylvie Guillem & Jonathon Cope was the day I decided I had to become a Ballet Dancer! Ultimately now my children are my biggest inspiration. I think every parent wants to be the most positive influence possible on their children and that inspires me an infinite amount.
I love this quote and believe it to be true, ‘You can find Inspiration everywhere but inspiration has to find you working’

No.8 Question from @gioogram asking about advice making the transition from a student to a professional dancer!
Graduating from school and making the step into the big wide world can be quite a daunting time however it is important to remember that it is the beginning of a new exciting chapter.
The best advice I can give to students is to be like a sponge. Be open to continue learning every single day of your professional career. Watch and learn from the dancers that inspire you but also learn from the dancers that don’t necessary excite you.
Ballet class is vital for any professional ballet dancer and the day you join a company or embark on a freelance career is when you need to work even harder at preserving and developing your technique. Your body and mind will probably get a shock when you begin working professionally as your workload increases so that is the time to get into good habits of recovery, eating well and investing time in looking after your body.
One final tip, don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek advice or guidance from the more experienced dancers in the company. Everyone was the new company member once ?

No.9 Questions about diet from numerous people asking
‘Can you please share your diet schedule during your training days?’ & ‘What do you eat before and during a performance?’

I have always tried to think of refuelling my body just like a car. If you put rubbish in a car it won’t function and your body is the same. That said, I do not like the idea of following an extremely strict program so I try eat everything in moderation.
I normally snack a lot during the day when rehearsals are back to back and you don’t want a big meal sat in your stomach.
Boiled eggs, raw spinach & bananas are something I eat regularly but some days you just need a boost of carbs so if my break is long enough I try eat a pasta dish or some other carb dominant food. Before a performance I enjoy eating sushi as the combination of carbohydrates and protein in a light format allow me to feel refuelled without feeling full. I always have bananas on hand in between acts and I am not going to lie, I LOVE sweets so there is always a bag close by for that extra sugar boost if needed!
Rehydrating is just as important so a drink with electrolytes is something I utilise during the day and also as the recovery process begins at the end of the day.
It is important for each individual to find what works for them. Ultimately your body needs to be fuelled so ensure you are never running on empty.... Your body will be happier and your brain will say thank you too!

No.10 Question from @jabumo ‘Why do you dance?’
I HAVE TO.... It is now in my blood!
When I stepped into the studio at age 7 I was an incredibly shy little boy. I instantly felt free and the whole world opened up in front of my eyes.
The challenge of forever aspiring to achieve an unattainable perfection is something I enjoy as I am able to learn something new daily. Performing is like experiencing a sixth sense. It’s like no other sense and everything becomes heightened when the curtain goes up.... I have never been good at learning languages however when I dance in any corner of the world I feel like I am able to communicate with any audience.
The human body is a phenomenally frustrating yet extraordinary piece of art that amazingly I get to explore every single day through dance - I feel very fortunate!

Thank you, Steven, for allowing us to publish the questions and your answers here on Spectacle.
Find his Instagram right here: @stevenmcrae_