Roman Baca
Photography by Anna Schori

After serving overseas, one veteran finds healing in an unlikely place.

After studying ballet and working for a few years as a professional dancer, a restless Roman Baca needed a new challenge. His grandfather and uncles had served in the military, so Baca followed in his family’s footsteps and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000. He was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, from 2005 to 2006 and found camaraderie and acceptance among the soldiers in his platoon. But returning to civilian life proved difficult.

By the Numbers

2 to 3 pounds
Weight of a pair of Marine Corps combat boots

6 ounces
Weight of a pair of men’s ballet slippers

60 to 90 pounds
Weight of a soldier’s combat load

95 to 125 pounds
Weight of a ballerina

Number of works created by Baca

Number of children who have participated in Baca’s outreach dance programs in New York City and Iraq

In 2007, at the urging of his then-girlfriend (she is now his wife), Baca formed Exit 12 Dance Company, a contemporary-­dance group that explores the effect of violence and war through movement. The group’s 10 ballets have been performed to great acclaim across the country on traditional stages and, to reach soldiers and veterans directly, at more unusual venues like West Point U.S. Military Academy, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid. Baca talked to American Way about his motivations and the reactions to his work.

American Way: What made you decide to leave dance and join the Marine Corps?
Roman Baca: I wanted to serve my country. Also, violence had been prevalent in my family in my younger years, and I wanted to stop that trend and learn how to stand up and fight for what is right — to protect what you love. The Marine Corps teaches you how to deal with your fear — how to utilize it and not be crippled by it.

AW: How did other soldiers react to your ballet background?
In Fallujah, I first told my best friend to kind of test it out. I said I was a classically trained ballet dancer and then mentioned I wanted­ to make a show about the war experience­ when I got back to the states. The next day, he showed up with a pad of paper and a couple of pencils and said, “Let’s write this down, dude. You’re going to do this when you get home.”

AW: And once you got home … ?
I did what other veterans were doing: I got a job, bought a condo, got more serious about family and relationships. Six months later, my girlfriend sat me down and said, “You’re not OK. You’re anxious, angry, depressed and mean, and you’re making people afraid of you.” It was ironic — I joined the Marine Corps to learn how to deal with fear, and now I was dishing it out and making other people afraid. She challenged me and said, “Let’s change this. If you could do anything, what would you do?” I said I’d go back to dance and start working on this idea I had in a bunker in Fallujah.

AW: What was your first ballet about?
It was about a Marine on patrol. It gave the audience the opportunity to think about the impact of the war not only on the people who fought it but all of the people who were affected by it. The response was incredible.

AW: Last year, you received a fellowship and returned to Iraq to teach choreography to kids. What was that like?
After the death [by suicide] of two of my comrades, I felt I had to do something bigger. In partnership with New York–based Battery Dance Company, we spent 10 days in Northern Iraq. We worked with 30 kids, half Kurdish and half Arab. The first day, they were on opposite sides of the courtyard, making snide comments and poking fun at each other. We challenged them to mix it up and interact, and they learned they could work together and depend on each other.

For information about Exit 12 and upcoming performances, visit