Perspective: 20 Questions with Millis Faust

Her name has a ring to it - Millis Faust. Her incredible story of talent, passion, and rise to stardom with an unexpected twist at what seemed to be just the dawn of her promising dance career is one that every young dancer should know.

We asked Millis a series of 20 questions ranging from silly to serious in an effort to shed light on the life of a ballerina who conquered the most trying of times with blind faith and poise.

1. We love your name. Is there a story behind it?

Thanks! It is my Mom’s maiden name. I love it, but not surprisingly, I get a lot of fun variations when I tell someone my name for the first time.

2. We know that ice skating got you into ballet. What is your first memory of ballet as a child?

I don’t actually remember much about ballet when I was skating, but I do remember not liking it! My first solid memory was probably when I was about 9 years old. I was at the dress rehearsal for our annual showcase and was onstage performing my piece with my class. I was such an obnoxious perfectionist at the time that when the other 9-year-olds would mess up the choreography or timing, I would get so angry. I still have a video of this exact day where you can see me glaring at my classmates and muttering things under my breath. Thankfully, I mellowed out (a little bit) as I got older!

3. Was The Rock a local school for you?

Yes, The Rock was a local school for me. I started out at their suburban location, which has more of a focus on other dance styles. After about two years, when I was 12, I was recruited to the downtown location where ballet was the primary focus.

4. You were 15 when you left for the Royal Ballet School. What was your favorite part of life in London? What was the most challenging part of life in London?

My favorite part of living in London was having everything I could ever want at my fingertips. There is always something going on in London! It was incredible to go from quiet, suburban Philadelphia to the hustle and bustle of London. I could go to all different types of shows and performances, museums, restaurants, shops, etc. The opportunities were overwhelming!

The most challenging part was having to become a fully independent adult at the age of 15. I got really lucky with my parents – before I moved away from home, they always drove me to school and ballet, my laundry was always done, and dinner was always on the table. When I moved to London, I had to figure out how to tackle all of that on my own. Learning how to get myself from point A to B with public transport, how to do my laundry, and how to cook and take care of myself, not to mention how to live peacefully with 20 to 30 other teenagers after having only one older brother, took some getting used to. But within a year, I grew up really fast and all of that started to become second nature.

5. Tell us about the moment you received your Finnish National Ballet contract.

I received an email about my FNB contract while I was in ballet class one morning. I saw the email pop up on my phone but kept it to myself. I’m not much of a bragger and didn’t want to make my classmates who were still job-hunting (many of whom auditioned with me) to feel discouraged. After class, I found a quiet corner and called my mom. I was completely overcome with emotion and felt immense relief. After all of those years of blood, sweat, and tears (literally), it was so comforting to know that it had all paid off and that all of the ups and downs had been worth it. I vividly remember being in total disbelief that my dream had actually come true and was overjoyed that I had finally made it to the professional level.

6. What was the best part of living as a ballerina in Finland?

Well, honestly, let’s just say that cold, dark winters are not for me! But there were a lot of people that helped me through them. So, for me, the best part of living as a ballerina in Finland, was the family that I made in the Finnish National Ballet. The Finns are wonderful people. It sometimes takes a while to “crack” them, but once they decide you aren’t crazy, they are some of the most genuine, loyal people in the world.

7. What was your favorite role at the Finnish National Ballet?

Without a doubt, my favorite role was the first big role that I performed – Jorma Elo’s "Double Evil." It was my second season with the company and I was not casted (or even understudying) in the piece when one of our ballet masters approached me at the end of company class one morning. He told me that one of the principal dancers was really ill and asked if I would be willing to step in and learn her part in Double Evil. I’m pretty sure I had to pick my jaw up off of the floor – I was so shocked! My first rehearsal started about an hour later and I was totally overwhelmed. The choreography is fast and extreme, but so incredibly fun. I walked out of the studio completely exhausted with my head spinning. My premiere came three weeks later and it is still my favorite memory of my ballet career. For the first time in my life, I walked offstage and was truly happy with my performance (a rarity for dancers), not because of how I technically performed, but because of how I lost myself in the moment and the performance. It was so fun!

(P.S. I often practiced on my own in those three weeks and recorded myself to really perfect every movement. Luckily, the video camera was rolling one day that I ended up having quite a comical incident…It went a little bit viral.)

8. When did your hip start bothering you?

My hip started bothering me immediately after the accident that caused the injury. I was dropped by a coworker who had lifted me above his head. He lost his balance and I ended up flying from his arms and crashing down onto my knees, jolting my femur into my hip joint. I was in shock at first and thought I was ok. The next day, I had very obvious pain.

9. Can you walk us through the timeline of the need for you to have surgery?

The accident occurred in May 2013. I went home for our summer break, hoping that the pain would subside, but after a few weeks, it still had not improved. I went to see a chiropractor, whose first words were, “I am not even going to touch you. There is something bigger going on here.” I am still so thankful for his good judgment.

Soon after that, I had various tests run and the doctors discovered a labral tear in my left hip. My chiropractor put me in contact with Bryan Kelly, one of the top hip surgeons in the world. Dr. Kelly didn’t want to pursue surgery unless it was absolutely necessary, so he prescribed physical therapy for 6-8 weeks and then a gradual return to ballet. I followed his orders and a couple of months later, my first role back was Bluebird in "Sleeping Beauty". I think preparing for that started to aggravate my hip and as time went on, I knew something wasn’t right. Then, right before Christmas, I was cast in Forsythe’s "In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated," one of the pieces I had always dreamed about performing. I was worried about my hip, but was absolutely determined to dance “Middle." Over my Christmas break, I went back to Dr. Kelly, who officially determined I’d need surgery. I convinced him that I wanted to perform my dream role, he gave me a cortisone shot to get through it, and we scheduled surgery for the end of February. I didn’t make it to those performances. The pain was so excruciating and nauseating that I was unable to eat or sleep and had quickly lost a lot of weight. I remember being unable to do the 5-minute walk home from the opera house without stopping to rest my hip every few steps. By the time I would get home, I couldn’t take one more step and would collapse inside the door, crying. Thank God for my puppy – who would come cuddle with me until I could peel myself off the floor!

I went home at the beginning of February and got my first surgery a few weeks later (it was the perfect 21st birthday present!...NOT.) Afterward, Dr. Kelly told me that he had never seen such an angry hip. The labral tear was worse than we thought, my ligament was shredded, and there was debris floating around in my joint. After seven months of rehab and physical therapy, I started back at the barre. The first couple of weeks started out ok. I was in pain, but it was manageable and expected. A few weeks later, I finally completed my first full ballet class, including my first grand jeté in almost a year. I was overjoyed! …The next day, I was in severe pain. As the weeks went by, the pain didn’t subside and the familiar pain that I had experienced a year prior returned. I knew in my heart that another surgery was looming. I kept in constant contact with Dr. Kelly and we arranged to meet in December.

I prepared myself for the worst news possible and started planning ahead and prepared applications for college. When we met in December, Dr. Kelly indeed gave me the worst news possible. Not only did I need another surgery but I was told that if I tried to go back to ballet again, I’d likely end up with a hip replacement before I was 30. That wasn’t something I wanted and I knew my career was over. Although completely devastated, I was glad that I had begun preparing my college applications in advance and tried as hard as I could to shift my focus to that to minimize my physical and emotional pain. I had my second surgery at the beginning of March 2015, one day after I received my acceptance letter to Columbia. It all seemed very clear to me – one door was closing, while another one opened. My second surgery consisted of many of the same things from my first surgery, in addition to reshaping my hip joint and tightening it to increase the stability which had been lost by the near-rupture of my ligament. I had another 9 months of rehab and physical therapy, before finally “graduating.”

As you can see, it’s quite a long timeline and I was not in a very happy place for the majority of it. But, I am so relieved to be on the other side of it now. It helped me to grow a lot, in many different respects, and I truly believe that this happened for a reason.

10. What made you choose Columbia?

One of the main reasons I chose Columbia was because of their School of General Studies. There is nothing “general” about it! It is packed with extraordinary people who have done extraordinary things before going to college. There are a lot of ballerinas, military veterans, successful business people, etc. After living abroad and on my own from the age of 15, I knew that I wanted to surround myself not only with teenagers straight out of high school, but with people who had life experience and interesting perspectives. The situation is perfect because, in any given classroom, there will be someone younger than me and someone older than me, providing a fresh perspective and a seasoned perspective respectively. It has greatly broadened my horizons! I am studying Neuroscience, as well as tackling a pre-medical concentration. Studying the brain is incredibly fascinating and there is so much about it that is still unknown, which is truly intriguing to me. I am actually about to begin research outside of school on concussions and traumatic brain injury. It’s great because I can combine my injury experience with my new passion for the brain.

11. What has been the most rewarding and challenging parts about your transition from professional ballerina to student?

The most rewarding part about transitioning from professional ballerina to student is how much my brain hurts on a constant basis! Of course, there is a definite mental component to the art of learning choreography, memorizing it, remembering corrections, etc. But, in my transition, I have been using so many different parts of my brain and that has been really refreshing. Of course, it has also been difficult because I had become rusty at many different cognitive skills over the years I had been out of school. But, as I began to brush the dust off and hone in on those skills again, it was liberating. I honestly love learning and the perspective I have now is so different than what it was a few years ago.

The most challenging part of the transition was finding a new passion. As a dancer, I always knew that when my retirement came, I wanted to do something totally different. I wanted to live two different lives in one – but, because my career ended so unexpectedly, I hadn’t figured out what that second chapter would be. I was lost when I began my studies at Columbia. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life or what I was passionate about and was concerned I’d never feel the same degree of passion for a new path as I did for ballet. At first, I wanted to study political science, but it never felt like a passion; rather, it was more of an interest. Then, I took my first neuroscience class and fell in love. The field is something that I definitely feel passionate about and I’m so excited to explore this new passion. It’s a relief to have finally found the subject of my second chapter!

12. What is something that you did not expect to love about university life?

One of the requirements at Columbia is a core curriculum, which I didn’t expect to love. We are required to take multiple writing, science, social science, language, literature, and humanities classes in addition to all of the classes for our major. I didn’t expect to love the literature classes, for example, because I am not a huge fan of long, drawn-out novels. But, one of the classes I took for that requirement was called “Avant Garde Poetry and Rap Music” and it was truly enlightening. I have such an appreciation for both topics now and it has helped me to approach both literature and music differently than I did before. The curriculum has made me a broader thinker because I am able to approach any topic from multiple viewpoints – and I absolutely love that!

13. Are your feet prettier these days?

You know, I got really lucky with my feet! They didn’t look bad at all when I was dancing - aside from a few bruised toenails and calluses. So, I didn’t have too much ground to make up…thankfully!

14. What do you wish you knew as a young dancer that you know now?

I wish I knew to thank my parents more. They are the absolute opposite of a ballet mom and dad and are passionate about education; because of that, they made it clear to me from a young age that my education would not suffer due to my ballet training. They were insistent that I have a backup plan. When I was young, all I wanted was to be a professional dancer. We got in many fights because I wanted to focus more on my ballet and they wouldn’t let my academics take a back seat. I wish I had known to listen, trust, and thank them more often…because, boy, has that backup plan come in handy!

The truth is, even the best dancer can have their career snatched away from them in a split second. My advice to younger dancers would be to hope for the best and work towards that with everything you have but to always be prepared and have a backup plan. You never know when you’re going to need it.

15. Do you have any words of advice for dancers dealing with an injury?

Always listen to your body, no matter the circumstances. Your body will dictate what you need to do (rest, seek help, push harder, etc.) Don’t be afraid to take some time off to rehab your injury because, often, you’ll come back stronger and better than you were before. Not to mention - it will light a new fire in you and renew your passion for the art.

16. What is the best part of being out of the ballet world?

All of the cookies! Just kidding... I love exploring new places, new ideas and getting to know people who have so many rich and varied life experiences. I also love that my life as an artist stays with me, enriches my life, and continues to inform my perspectives.

17. What changes do you hope to see in the dance world?

One change that I hope to see in the dance world is a greater proliferation of female artistic directors. That role is largely male dominated and I think that having more women could really do great things for the art form. Just look at Tamara Rojo – she is doing fabulous, progressive things for English National Ballet.

18. What's on your bucket list?

I absolutely love to travel, so my bucket list is pretty indicative of that. Thailand, Africa, and Australia are on my list. I really want to do an African Photographic Safari and swim in one of those cages with sharks in Australia.

19. What do you enjoy in your spare time?

I don’t get too much spare time with all of the studying and researching that I do. Honestly, although I no longer dance for 10 hours a day, I think I have less spare time now than I did when I was dancing! When I do end up with some free time though, I enjoy walking my dog in Riverside Park, going to dinner with friends, traveling, and staying active.

20. What have you discovered about yourself as a person since the transition out of dance?

I have discovered that I have an identity that is deeper than “Millis The Ballerina.” As I grew up and into my professional career, I was used to being introduced to people as “the ballerina.” When my career ended, I felt like I lost my identity – I had no idea who I was. So, I have spent the past two years trying to figure out who I am beyond my career: what my beliefs are, what my opinions are, what kind of people I want to surround myself with, likes and dislikes, passions, etc. The transition was incredibly challenging, but I have grown so much and I am much more secure, happy, and confident with the deeper identity that makes me, well, me.

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