Instead of ramen, textbooks and 20-hour days, young professional ballroom-hopefuls opt for calloused feet, exhausted muscles and, well, 20-hour days.
Rachel Pope, a native of Provo, is one of the professional hopefuls who waved goodbye to her home and comfort zone within weeks of graduating high school and ventured down the road less traveled — all the way to New Jersey to pursue a ballroom dance career, her passion since childhood. Since jumping into the professional world of dance, Pope has found her religious standards challenged, but she said she wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything.
“I’ve gotten so many questions on the gospel and on my lifestyle,” she said. “It’s been a really good learning experience for me to have to explain those things to people and it’s a good experience for them to realize that there’s other things that can make people happy and that can bring joy into this life.”
Pope, like anyone else who leaves the concentrated Mormon population in Utah at a young age, has faced decisions, like not competing or practicing on Sunday, that she believes have made her tougher. Melissa and Lorenzo Pope, Rachel’s parents, said they have worried about their daughter during the last couple years, but her strong and determined spirit give them confidence.
“We just kind of have to go on faith that she’s out there and that she can make good decisions about her life,” Melissa Pope said. “We can trust that she’ll do good things and that she’ll be protected as she does them.”
And she does believe her daughter's religious base is what protects and carries her through.
“You take away their entire support system and then what you get is really just the core of the person that she is,” Melissa Pope said. “And that’s really the only thing that has been able to sustain her to keep going in a sport that has not always been an easy ride.”
Rachel Pope said her beliefs through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have given her a treasured foundation, one that doesn’t tremble under the laborious schedule and ways of dance life. However, she is beginning to comprehend the rising hurdles of continuing with the competitive ballroom route while trying to balance religious beliefs. Perhaps it’s not impossible, but ever more demanding.
“I’ve gotten to the path where you have to choose,” Rachel Pope said. “It’s mixable to a point, but you get to a certain point in your dance career and you need to choose what’s more important to you.”
Brent Keck, a Brigham Young University ballroom instructor and one of Pope’s past coaches, faced a similar situation a few years after he and his wife went professional. They had to choose between having children or going for the national Latin title. Though not without struggle, they opted for the family route. He said while there is obvious value in learning and developing talents, there are also benefits of new paths and directions that make it more feasible to have a family and attend church.
With this understanding, Pope has started to consider what other options life has yet to offer. Ultimately, she aspires to a college degree in physics or journalism — with a minor in dance, of course.
“I want to try things and I want to explore and see,” Pope said. “I just want to pick up a little bit of everything until I find something that I love just as much as dancing.”
Eventually she also wants to have a family, and her years of dance partnerships have given her plenty of practice for the day she does fall in love.
“We call it a practice marriage because we travel together, we work together, we practice together, we teach together,” she said. “You’re doing everything together. You see your dance partner probably more than most people see their spouse. Your careers are linked and your lives are linked. You can’t make decisions by yourself at this point in your dance career because it doesn’t involve just you.”
The couple didn’t qualify for the Amateur Latin finals at the recent national DanceSport competition, but Pope remains positive.
“Nobody is going to remember in three years from now even what place I was at nationals this year,” she said. “People are going to forget about it. It’s not something that lasts — all the trophies and the medals and the championships — they don’t stay with you.”