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Dancing On Her Own Terms

Suvi Honkanen • 28 Oct 2021

Dancing On Her Own Terms

An interview with ballet dancer Anni Jokimies by Suvi Honkanen

Anni Jokimies, 26, started dance classes at the age of 7 in a small ballet studio in Lappeenranta, Finland. It wasn’t long until ballet became more than a hobby; Anni was accepted to Finnish National Opera Ballet School at age 14 and two years later, was spotted by a judge at an International Ballet Competition, leading to an invitation train at Balletschule Basel on a one-year scholarship. Only one semester into her year in Switzerland and she was asked to join the corps de ballet of Ballet du Rhin for the rest of the year. She was offered a position in the youth company of Finnish National Ballet right after graduating and has been working as a professional ballet dancer ever since. 

How did you get started in ballet?

I was a really hyper kid with a lot of energy. A friend of my mom’s had seen an ad about ballet classes for boys at our local dance school.  She suggested they both enrol their sons as it would be a good way for them to get their energy out and learn some discipline. My mom was immediately like, Anni is the one who needs that! So instead of my brother, it was me who was taken to ballet class. I went, and I stayed. 

You moved away from home at age 14 to study ballet in Helsinki. What was that like?

I’ve always someone who gets more excited rather than scared about challenges and opportunities. I had all this desire to go and try and experience new things. I came with the same teacher from Lappeenranta, so I had at least one person there who I knew and who I could trust. 

Ballet has taken you all over the world. You’ve danced in companies in Finland, France, and the US. Now you’re working as a freelancer for the first time. What are the biggest challenges and differences of being your own boss?

Training alone is the hardest part for me. On the other hand, that’s something I did even when I was dancing in a company. I trained a lot by myself afterhours, so I guess I’m kind of used to it. As a freelancer, no one tells you what studio to go to at what time and what to rehearse. That’s all on you. The responsibility is both exhilarating and challenging. What I value the most about freelancing are the interactions and experiences I get to share with other artists, like musicians or actors. I’ve gotten to do things that would never have been possible if I were a dancer under a contract in a company. For example, dancing in a church with live organ music. 

What is your daily routine like at the moment?

I wake up every morning to take class at 10 AM. After class, I rehearse for whatever pieces are coming up next. Sometimes I rehearse alone and at other times, like now, we are rehearsing for the premiere of Heaven’s Gate. I eat something around 2 pm and then head off to teach for the evening.  

The pandemic forced you to move back to Finland from the US. In what other ways has Covid affected your life and career?

The pandemic offered me a chance to slow down and work through a lot of old traumas. It was ups and downs, but I feel like I’ve come out of the other end as a completely different person. I started working with Minna Tervamäki during Covid and would not have made it through without her.

What does it mean to you to have a coach and mentor like Minna?

Our relationship is built on mutual trust, respect, and appreciation. I feel that she appreciates the unique qualities I have and believes in my abilities. We give each other a lot of support and aren’t afraid of telling the other person how much we appreciate them. She helps me so much in terms of staying motivated.

Speaking of motivation, where do you find the willpower to keep going during difficult times?

I get a lot of inspiration and energy from the people around me. The hardest for me is having to train alone, especially if I don’t have a gig coming up. That’s when I feel like, “why do I have to take class, for what?” But I’ve found that there is always someone I can rely on to get that boost from; a teacher, a choreographer, or another dancer. 

In terms of different genres, what kind of works do you enjoy dancing the most?

I like dancing pieces that give me the opportunity to explore movement. I enjoy finding new ways to use my body to bring something to life. I think it’s exciting to learn new things about myself and discover ways I can best utilize the unique qualities that I have.

What kind of traits do you value in choreographers?

I enjoy working with choreographers who value the interaction between the dancer and choreographer. It’s fun to be inspired by one another. I also find that when I feel like I’m respected and believed in, I can do my best and bring the choreographer’s vision to life. It’s so important to feel that you are trusted and believed in during the process of learning and creating steps.

Do you have a favorite, memorable moment from the stage?

There are so many. But perhaps one that pops to mind now is a performance from one year ago in Tampere. I danced a solo from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade and the experience was wonderful. Having the orchestra play that beautiful music just e.

Have you faced any big setbacks or challenges in your career so far?

When I had my hip surgery at age 21, I thought that was the end of the world. I had no idea how I would come out of that and dance again. Now, it feels like nothing compared to all the emotional challenges I have faced. 

In terms of emotional and mental challenges, what has been the most difficult aspect to overcome?

Rejection. Endless rejection. I’ve always had so much will and desire to train and improve. I’ve always believed in myself and known that I have it in me. I just needed the chance to show it. When it never came, I started doubting myself and my abilities. I realize now that the feeling of not being wanted held me back so much in my dancing. I started to think “I can’t do this, I shouldn’t even try”.

Moving to the US changed everything for me. There, suddenly, I was enough. I got to do a lot and it was wonderful. But all those years of being rejected were ingrained in my brain, and I found myself thinking “why me? I can’t do this, I’m not good enough.”

Then came Covid and I moved back home to Finland. When I started working with Minna, I started developing a whole new dancer’s identity. Something that wasn’t based on approval, but on my own motivations and my love for dance. Now, I know and accept my strengths and weaknesses. I do my best, and that’s enough for me.  

What do you think makes a dancer?

I used to think that if I’m not employed in some big, appraised ballet company, I can’t call myself a dancer. Now I see it completely differently. I get to do what I love and am paid for it. A dancer is someone who dances. I think that kind of maturity and self-respect comes with age and experience.

What is it that you love most about dancing?

I love the feeling of being in my own world onstage. That world is free from all the negativity and all the bad that happens outside of it. I give myself to the moment completely and honestly. You are kind of naked onstage, it’s like saying “this is me, vulnerable and open, ready to share this moment with you.” 

Tell us about your hopes and dreams for the future.

I’ve thought a lot about what direction I want to go next, when Covid is really over. I want to dance somewhere where dancers are respected and valued. We’ll see what kind of options the future holds. What I do know is that I want to improve, continue to be inspired, and do what I love on my own terms. 

Anni is currently preparing for the premiere of Heaven’s Gate by dancer/choreographer Minna Tervamäki. You can follow her journey on Instagram @annnimannni.

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