By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
It may seem like quite a stretch to think of a battle-hardened Marine as being a ballet dancer, but before Roman Baca had to deal with the aftermath of fighting in Fallujah, he was a classically trained danseur de ballet. His CV in the dance world is most impressive, both pre and post-Fallujah, and it was actually his wife’s idea to start Exit12, Roman’s dance company.
Roman enlisted in the Marines because he wanted to make a difference, and felt deeply compelled to serve his country. This was just before 9/11, and he knew that it would not be long before his commitment to serve his country would be put to the test of battle. Interestingly, some of what motivated him to enlist in the first place was the discipline of dance. Being a dancer of any type demands great physical stamina and a fierce set of goals. There is a community and camaraderie amongst dancers, so the idea of being in a literal “Band of Brothers” was already something to which he was accustomed.
Roman was a fire team leader and a machine gunner. He gathered intel and flushed out insurgents. As was my continual observation while in Iraq, the passion to defend on the part of troops was matched with the passion to help, and Roman was involved in getting water and supplies to the population in general, and school supplies to children in particular. What made his heart beat in his chest was to defend the vulnerable, and you can tell that he has military bearing and strength coupled with compassion.
When Roman came home, he was self-aware enough that he knew he was in trouble. There was the common anger, depression, inner conflict, and he was no fun to live with. He assumed that his ballerina wife, Lisa Fitzgerald, would become fed up with him and leave. One day, she asked him, “If you could do anything, what would you do?” He answered, “Start a dance company.” “OK, let’s do it,” she said. So they did. To say that Exit12 is an anomaly in the dance world is an understatement, but miraculously they have received funding and recognition from some of the highest echelons in the arts worldwide.
So, what is Exit12? It is a dance company that seeks to tell the soldier’s story through dance. This is not “men in tights,” this is a troupe that most of the time performs in ABUs, the desert camo uniforms worn in the Great Sandbox, and they even dance in standard issue desert boots. They also have props that resemble M-16s, and to watch Roman teach his dancers respect for the weapon, how to “shoot,” and be situationally aware is a marvel. Then to have it all woven into the choreography is even more so. They have filmed dances in subways, courtyards, as well as on traditional stages. To me the most unusual is their annual Memorial Day performance on the deck of the retired aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid.
Baca’s purpose in forming Exit12 was to bring healing to soldiers, their families, and civilians. Dance therapy is now recognized as a powerful modality in PTSD recovery due to the understanding that trauma shows up in muscle memory, and “dancing it out” is indeed “a thing.” He has given a Ted Talk that is most informative, and even returned to Iraq to bring dance to the young people of Erbil, which is in the north where Kurds love Americans. Can battle and ballet be blended? I would say Roman Baca is the proof. To learn more, go to www.exit12danceco.org.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner