Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Coming to Denmark from a young age, Holly felt a little out of place with the new cultural adjustments. After finding the love of her life, and learning about the unique Danish culture she's picked up a new respect and understanding that has only added to her love of her new country.
Photographs: Klaus Vedfelt / Peter Anderson
Text: Bailey Jensen
American Ballerina Holly Dorger shares with us her journey from the United States, to becoming a Principal Dancer at The Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen.
When and why did you move to Denmark?
In 2008 I moved to Denmark. I was straight out of high school and eighteen years old. I was dancing at the School of American Ballet in New York City on a full scholarship. This ballet school feeds into the New York City Ballet. I came to Denmark because of my teacher, Danish ballet dancer Nikolaj Hubbe. He danced at the New York City Ballet for twenty years, and he would sometimes come to the School of American Ballet to teach classes. I met him was I was fourteen years old when he was the substitute teacher for the day. We all thought he was so handsome. What's funny is he still remembers where I stood at the ballet barre that first day of class. Then when I was eighteen and old enough to be a ballerina with a company, Nikolaj offered me a job.
This was a total curveball to be offered a job as a ballerina in Denmark. I had never heard of Denmark. I was training to be a ballerina at the New York City Ballet and did not want to leave New York City, and I think it was a blessing in disguise. But I remembered being confused and sad when I didn't get a job as a ballerina in the New York City Ballet. Little did I know Nikolaj went to Peter from the New York City Ballet and made a decision that I would come to Denmark to dance at The Royal Danish Ballet.
What are some differences between the United States and Denmark?
I think the random stranger is easier to meet and talk to in the USA. When I'm back home, it feels like I could have a casual conversation with just about anyone. In Denmark, once you make friends and get into a friend group, they are everything and more. Many friend groups have known each other for so long and are content with the group the way it is. So, to crack into a group of people, coupled with my weird working hours, and the discipline that is needed to do my job, makes it a bit of a struggle to meet others outside the ballet company. The humour is different. I come from the Midwest, which has its own type of comedy. I understand Danish sarcasm, but it can be so dark… Denmark is Dark enough!
One of the most significant differences I have felt between the USA and Denmark is the different approach to a competitive environment. In the US, there is this mindset of just go-go-go… or else the girl behind you is going to pass you. I was raised on that type of mentality, so when I first moved here for dance and nothing else, I brought with me some goals and ambitions. I had to adjust to being more like the Danish culture of a more work-life-balance mindset. At first, it didn't make sense to me. I wanted to always be in the studio, playing around and doing what I love. But there is some wisdom to the Danish point of view. I'm super grateful for it now.
"It is rewarding giving back to the next generation of dancers and inspiring kids. You can see it in their eyes when you walk past them in the hallway, as the girls quietly break out into whispers "Oh my God, it's Holly!" Maybe one day they will be dancing to the sugarplum like me."
What are some of the challenges of learning Danish and being an international?
I have been in Denmark for twelve years now and plan to live here for the foreseeable future. My Danish husband and I know that doors are open, so nothing is set in stone. I just got my Danish permanent residency on my birthday, which was a lovely present! I do want to become a dual citizen in Denmark, but it has been difficult. The citizenship exam is only offered in December which is our busiest season at the ballet, or it is in June when I am touring around Denmark for the Summer Ballet. Considering this, I am having trouble completing that last step.
I can speak Danish now, but don't consider myself fluent. It was hard enough moving countries, and it took me several years to even get used to the sounds. Dating a Dane gave me more of a reason to learn, though, because my work is all in English. I also used the app Duolingo to help.
Royal Danish Ballet
It has been a dream come true dancing at The Royal Danish Ballet. There is intense joy and happiness that I only can experience when dancing. I love being out on stage and pushing the boundaries with dance. A typical day as a ballerina begins every day at 10:00 with a ballet class, followed by the first rehearsal block, second rehearsal block, an evening call, and if there is shown that is in the evenings. In ballet, there are different ranks. I became a Principal Ballerina four years ago, which is the highest rank in the company. The hardest part about ballet isn't the physical side of it; it's the mindset. It is, of course, physically tiring, but I have been dancing since I was four years old. Dancing is like eating eggs for breakfast, and it just makes sense to me. You have to keep mentally focused and motivated always. Everyone is working towards the same goals, and it can get competitive. When you are on your way up, people can come at you from any direction. I was naïve to this and at times this cut me deeply. Yes we all generally get along and support each other but we do all dream of the same things so at times it can feel quite lonely. Ballet is an industry that is obsessed with youth. You can only do it for so long. In Denmark, we have lifetime contracts which means I'm forced to retire when I am 40 years old. That also means that you get paid year-round and have a pension. Whereas in America, if you are not dancing, you are not getting paid. We are very well taken care of, which is a blessing.
It is rewarding giving back to the next generation of dancers and inspiring kids. You can see it in their eyes when you walk past them in the hallway, as the girls quietly break out in whispers "oh my god, it's Holly!" I love to talk to them, joke around with them and take pictures with them, one day it will be them dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy. We have to support the next generations.
What do you miss about life in the United States?
I get to go back to the United States about once a year in the summers. But I don't always go back to my home state of Michigan. Sometimes I will visit cousins, or we will meet in different places around the country. I moved away from Michigan when I was fourteen, so there aren't many of my high school friends left in Michigan. However, what I do miss most about Michigan is this vast melting pot of cultures. Even though Detroit has had its rough moments, it also has that "we won't give up" attitude that you can feel from the people that live there. Detroit has a coolness that one can't explain. You have to see it. Live it. And Be it. I miss that edge.
What is it like being in a relationship with a Dane, and what cultural issues did you two overcome?
My Danish husband, Brian, was one of the first people I ever met when I was eighteen and just moved to Denmark. He was working backstage as a stage technician at The Royal Danish Ballet We dated for a little while back when I first moved here, but with the transition of moving countries, it wasn't the best timing. Years later, we reconnected again, and four years later, we are married.
Being a multicultural couple, we did have different expectations when it came to some things. The first thing that pops into my head is our difference in opinions about getting married. As an American, this was a natural next step for our relationship and vital to me. But Danes don't always see the desire to get married the same. Brian didn't need a wedding. I felt that cultural difference in this situation. As a Dane, he didn't want all of the attention of a big wedding ceremony. But we ended up having a big American wedding during the summertime in Detroit, Michigan, in my family's backyard, and he loved it! His family came over from Denmark for the wedding, and it was his mom's first time visiting the United States. It was perfect. We had a Motown band and served Thanksgiving dinner for the wedding because that's my favourite meal. We also included many Danish wedding traditions. Some of Brian's friends also flew over for the wedding, so one of them was the toastmaster. We did the Danish tradition of kissing on the chairs and under the table, danced the waltz with everyone in a circle around us, and ended with the groomsmen lifting Brian in the air and cutting the top of his socks off! Then we ended the night likes the Danes do and had hotdogs at midnight.
What advice do you have for fellow internationals?
To fellow internationals that have just moved to Denmark, I would say to fall in love with where you are living. That was one of my mistakes. I kept comparing Copenhagen to New York and to what was familiar to me. Instead of looking at these differences and focusing on it negatively, it is crucial to find the positive in living here. Copenhagen isn't New York City, but it is its own jewel of a city.
What is summer ballet in Denmark?
Every summer a small group from The Royal Danish Ballet tours around ten different cities in Denmark. We perform outside in beautiful locations for the public and free of charge. The exact cities have been released and can be found on www.kglteater.dk
Holly will be starring in an upcoming international film to be shot in Copenhagen in 2020. She's collaborating with highly talented Valerie Saunders who is doing awesome things as an international in Denmark.
You can follow Holly on SoMe: www.www.hollydorger.com / @hollydorger