Through Dance, An Iraq War Veteran Brings the Front Lines to the Front Row

By Roman Baca

My mission was to bring the experience of Iraq to a dance theater in New York City. Scaring an audience that came to see a ballet was how I did it.

The ballet titled “Habibi Hhaloua,” an Arabic phrase roughly translated as “my beautiful, you have my eyes,” began in an opaque room filled with tension. The only lights visible in the theater were two tiny red dots dancing around—the kind of red dots usually associated with assassins, targets and death.

A fellow Marine and I patrolled the aisles wearing our combat uniforms while carrying fake M16s outfitted with laser pointers. The Islamic call to prayer began, just as it did many times when we were on patrol in the desert. The crowd of New Yorkers, hushed silent by the uncertainty in the room, gasped when they caught sight of our silhouettes. They saw two armed Marines ready to engage the enemy. We saw an audience transported to a place they would never experience.

We had their attention.

Photo credit Exit12 Dance Company photo by Arthur Fink

A rifle-wielding dancer performs in “Habibi Hhlaoua.”

The ballet I choreographed was about a Marine on patrol in Iraq. It depicts the monotony of war and the way service members keep themselves sane in a war zone. They think about home and the loved ones they carry with them every single day, and our mission was to convey that on stage.

“Habibi Hhaloua” debuted in 2007 while violence raged across Iraq. I returned from that war-torn country a year earlier—not as professional ballet dancer and choreographer—but as a battled-hardened Marine. My 2005 deployment to Fallujah was marked by patrols, IEDs and mortar rounds. My job as a machine gunner and fire-team leader kept me busy, but when we weren’t patrolling local villages and dusty highways, I would find a place to sketch.

It wasn’t my nature to be assertive and aggressive 24 hours a day, but that’s what a combat zone often demands. As an introvert who enjoyed being alone, I needed an outlet to recharge. The seclusion of a rooftop in the middle of a city at war was the only creative space available.

I would climb to the top of wherever we were staying, pull out a sketchbook and listen to the machine guns in the distance and the helicopters flying overhead. I’d get lost for hours and time would pass without notice. There wasn’t much downtime, but there wasn’t much to do with it anyway. Talking to friends and family never got old, but there’s only so much you can say or write. I missed being creative, so I looked to my environment and used it for inspiration.

Roman Baca sits on a disabled tank during his 2005-06 deployment to Fallujah, Iraq. | Photo credit Photo courtesy of Roman Baca

The arts were an integral part of my life before I joined the Corps. One of my best friends in high school was a ballet dancer and I assumed she put on ballet shoes, twirled on stage and was lifted by boys. She told wonderful stories about dance and invited me to her performances. I went and was immediately interested in learning.

I guess it’s kind of cliché, but lots of people face tough times during their teenage years. When I turned 17, I moved out of my mom’s house—my parents were divorced—and I moved from Washington state, where I was raised, back to New Mexico, where I was born.

I took advantage of that freedom and started taking dance classes at a small studio in Albuquerque. Ballet and jazz were the styles I studied, but the intellectual pursuit of ballet—the emotion and spirituality involved—was what interested me most. My late start proved to be the challenge.

Male dancers were hard to find, so I started to perform almost immediately. My first fully staged, professionally produced musical was “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” I did “West Side Story” and “Chicago” and I fell in love with the art form. I soon realized I needed more training, so I moved to Connecticut to study classical ballet at the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts.

After graduating, I was getting paid to do something I loved, but I wasn’t content. The window of a dance career closes quickly and the path to becoming a member of a company is long and competitive. There’s a lot of uncertainty and the journey is sometimes unkind, even if everything goes according to plan. My love of ballet hadn’t waned, but I was ready for a change.

Outside opinions about my career choice weighed heavily on my mind and I wanted to alter their views. Joining the Marine Corps was the fastest way to make a 180-degree turn. There isn’t a lot of traffic on the road between the ballet and the Marine Corps, but I’m one of the few who’s made that unlikely journey.

I deeply respected people who served and was connected to the military through my grandfather, a Korean War veteran, and his three brothers who served. I grew up near Tacoma, Washington, in the area that’s now home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. I wasn’t a military brat, but I had a lot of friends who were. Many joined the military and they were respected and lauded for the careers they chose. I had soccer coaches, mentors and advisors with military backgrounds. They inspired me and I wanted to serve my country.

I walked into the recruiting office with two earrings and red hair. Eight years later, I left the Corps with some new traits. I was part of a Marine family that would always have my back and I was armed with confidence I needed to rush toward my personal and professional fears.

I returned home from Fallujah in 2006 and was placed on Individual Ready Reserve status. I was still a Marine, but my transition to civilian life was underway. From the outside, my transition couldn’t have been any better. I bought a condo, secured a good job, took vacations and learned how to scuba dive. Dancing professionally wasn’t part of the picture.

The first six months after Iraq was great. Everyone was happy to see me and I was able to do all the fun stuff I couldn’t do downrange. After six months, the joy and happiness withered away and I was left to deal with the aftermath of war and service on my own. I didn’t know what normal people did after combat, so I used my grandfather’s experience as a roadmap. When he came back from the Korean War, he settled down with my grandmother. They bought a house—the home my grandfather still lives in today—and he had a great job he kept until he retired. I wanted to follow his example.

I tried to get serious with Lisa, my girlfriend at the time, but she wasn’t interested in that. She said I wasn’t the guy she met before the war and said I was scaring people. My transition wasn’t going as well as I thought.

Iraq had given me so much worldly perspective and I came back carrying the shadows of serving overseas. The aggression and assertiveness I used to survive in a war zone wasn’t working in the civilian world. I was anxious, angry and depressed and I missed the camaraderie I had in the Marine Corps.

Service members have a desire and an obligation to support each other through life’s toughest situations and few civilian relationships can replicate that level of commitment. The people I served with in Iraq cared about each other, but the some of the people I encountered after the Corps were willing to cast others aside to get what they wanted.

Photo credit Exit12 Dance Company photo by Arthur Fink

Roman Baca dances with his wife, Lisa, who co-founded Exit12 Dance Company with him.

My future wife was not one of those people. Lisa, a classical ballerina, challenged me to change and asked me a question that shaped our future. It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves at least once in our lives. Daydreaming about it is easy. Answering it honestly and making it happen is the hard part.

“If you could do anything you wanted with your life, what would it be?” she asked.

I told her that I’d always wanted to start a dance company. I didn’t know what her response would be, but she surprised me with her immediate and unwavering support.

We started renting space in New York City and turned a dream into reality. Exit12 Dance Company was formed and we began creating our first original work—an artistic, neoclassical piece that we thought was great. We filmed the first performance and sent it to industry professionals to get some feedback. The collective response was that it was not good. But the verdict did not discourage me. It was our first product and I wanted to know what we needed to do to get better, so I asked.

Stephen Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin in Texas, one of the nation’s premier companies, wrote back. He said that I, as Exit12’s artistic director, had to find my voice—that thing which is aching to come out and that only I can define.

I was pretty sure I knew what that one thing was.

There were a lot of dance companies doing small one-off performances about Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the pieces were inspired by people who served but were still lacking raw authenticity. There wasn’t anyone in the field talking about the war from the perspective of a rifle-carrying infantryman with boots on the ground. The non-military artists were adding their voice, which was valuable, but I had an opportunity to come at it from a unique perspective.

Initially, I drew on my own experiences to choreograph, but I knew that external voices would only add to the conversation. I talked to veterans, wounded warriors and military families because I wanted my work to reflect the veteran perspective, not my own. The valuable experiences of others helped me grow as a choreographer and helped Exit12 break new ground. We can tackle difficult issues because we have subject-matter experts willing to lend us their voices. Their input gives Exit12’s performances a level of credibility and authenticity that is hard to acquire.

There’s a lot to stress out about as the leader of a ballet company, but nothing comes close to the anxiety and panic that consumes me when military members are in the audience. I desperately want them to connect with our work and I hope they are able to see a bit of themselves in the stories we share. We can’t do any of that if we’re not authentic and honest.

Exit12 performed a show during Fleet Week in New York in 2009 and I was an inconsolable ball of nerves. There were active-duty sailors and Marines in the audience wearing their dress blues and dress whites. Some of my battle buddies drove down from Massachusetts to see the performance.

All I could think about was how much they were going to hate the show. My wife did her best to calm me, but I was convinced of my own fate. After the ballet, while pacing back and forth, I bumped into one of the active-duty Marines in attendance and asked him what he thought.

“You were there,” he said without knowing I was an Iraq War veteran. “I was too.”

He asked where I served and said he was in Ramadi. He thought his experiences were reflected in the piece and he had nothing but good things to say. I felt lighter and less burdened as I made my way downtown to meet my Marine buddies at a bar. They had a beer waiting for me when I arrived and were eager to give their interpretation of the ballet I had written. I sat back, mug in hand, and listened.

Former Marine Roman Baca and Lara Tant perform “Habibi Hhlaoua,” a ballet choreographed by Baca, an Iraq War veteran. | Photo credit Exit12 Dance Company photo by Rachel Neville

From beginning to end, everything they said was what I envisioned when I choreographed the piece. The story was transmitted to the audience without interference and their spot-on interpretations were music to my ears.

I wish I could say that it has gotten easier over time, but it hasn’t. We take risks and push the envelope with every performance and it’s nerve-wracking to sit in the audience and watch your work get put to the test. The stage is a harsh place, but it’s a lot easier than a war zone.

Many veterans are drawing on their combat experiences to create incredible works of art, but I think Exit12 is the only dance company led by a combat veteran.

While normal performance spaces have not opened their doors yet, we’ve had some success going to unconventional venues like the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York, where we’ve performed three times. Exit12 has danced at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the U.S. Military Academy. While most professional dancers would complain about the absence of real floors, our group rises to the occasion.

Performing outside the traditional theater setting is only one of the many adjustments our dancers have made. Almost every Exit12 performance has an audience engagement section and talking about our work is required. It’s easy for me to answer the hard questions, but the audience wants to know what the dancers think of the work and what it means to them. As a group, they do an exemplary job of describing their connection to the work and why they’re passionate about it.

Taylor Gordon, who joined us about five years ago, took a role playing a military wife who goes to the airport to reunite with her husband. He never shows up because of an accident and she finally reconnects with him in a burn unit a month later. Her objective as an artist was to communicate the story to an audience without words. It’s a tough task, but the degree of difficulty is even higher for someone who hasn’t experienced those kinds of hardships.

For two years, she tried to wrap her mind and body around the subject. Then her brother joined the Army. His enlistment and subsequent deployment to Afghanistan provided the perspective she was searching for. We were performing on the Intrepid soon after he deployed and her visual and emotional approach to the role completely changed. She understood the realities of service and it showed in her performance.

Taylor is among the talented people who have been with us for years and are committed to the work we do. When we started, our aim was to pull together a group of dancers who were like family and who were invested in the world. Just like any organization, it took a while to get it right. Early on, we had dancers with no military ties and limited passion for the material. Today, we have a group that is willing to travel to countries shattered by violence to teach dance to refugees and others displaced by war.

I traveled to Iraq in 2012 as a teaching artist through a fellowship with The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization. We ran a dance workshop for Iraqi youths from Irbil and Kirkuk. The workshop, facilitated by Battery Dance Company through a grant from the State Department, was aimed at bringing divergent cultures together through dance. The experience was unforgettable and I want to revisit the country to conduct more workshops with some members of my Exit12 team.

I have a squad of dancers who are excited to deploy in an artistic role wherever they are sent. They are a resilient, brave bunch and our close-knit group has given me some of the camaraderie I missed after leaving the Marines. The relationships are different, but the willingness to fight for and support one another is the same.

To outside observers, it might seem like the military and professional dance have nothing in common, but they do. Each requires devotion, passion and discipline. Physical fitness was a requirement on the streets of Fallujah and it’s essential on stage and in rehearsals. Attention to detail is a critical element of both worlds, as is the ability to adapt under intense pressure.

Perseverance is drilled into Marines the day they arrive at recruit training and my stubbornness is probably the reason I still have a dance company. There were many times when plans collapsed and things didn’t go as expected. The same could be said about the battlefields I fought on. In each situation, the easy route would have been to quit at the first sign of adversity, but Marines aren’t known for taking the path of least resistance.

In war, those skills can and have saved lives. Beyond the confines of military service, those same traits have helped Exit12 deliver on our mission to inspire conversations about the lasting effects of violence and conflict on communities, families and individuals.

—Roman Baca, an Iraq War veteran who separated from the Marine Corps in 2008, is the co-founder and artistic director of Exit12 Dance Company. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.