Once a dance major, naysayers nearly crushed his dream. But Ruben Medina, now a senior majoring in physics at California State University, Dominguez Hills, leapt from the clutches of confusion and self-doubt to have it all.
In evidence, the Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and Minority Access to Research Careers-Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (MARC-USTAR) student has participated in opposite ends of the spectrum at the university’s Student Research Day. He went from winning first place in physics in the 2011 competition with his presentation “Improving KAON Identification with CLAS” to this year demonstrating ballet barre technique, along with several other CSU Dominguez Hills dance students, in front of a large crowd in the Loker Student Union Ballroom.
However, Medina hadn’t always been confident enough to pursue both of his passions at the same time.
He discovered he had an inclination toward math and science while a student at Cesar E. Chavez High School in Delano in central California, which led him to take physics courses in his senior year. That same year he also discovered dance when on a whim he auditioned to be on the combination color guard/dance squad.
“I only made it because I was a boy,” he recalled.
Wanting to improve his dance skills, he enrolled in ballet classes at a private dance studio in his hometown near Bakersfield. The director, impressed with his potential, gave him a scholarship to take as many classes in as many genres as he wanted. He studied hip-hop, lyrical, ballet, body conditioning, jazz, and contemporary–a modern style strongly influenced by ballet, and one that he now considers his forte.
Conflicts in his extra-curricular time necessitated that he choose between the color guard/dance squad at school and his studies at the studio. He chose the studio.
“But to pay for the dance classes, I had to work two jobs,” he said. “I worked weekends at a pizza parlor and all through lunch period every day at the school cafeteria.”
Determined, he worked toward his newfound dream of becoming a dancer.
But once in college, things didn’t go so smoothly. His freshman year turned out to be a struggle because of financial issues. He attended CSU East Bay, then Long Beach City College. Moving back into his parents’ house to save money, he finished his first year during the summer term at Bakersfield College.
There were other pressures, too. Friends and classmates were criticizing him for taking up dance as a teenager, assuming that he was too old. As he tried to fast track what he thought was a late start, Medina pushed himself to the point of injury. And although his dance instructors saw something in him, he wasn’t convinced he had any special talent.
“Most male dancers start when they are sixteen or seventeen,” he said, comparing that to professional female dancers who typically start training as young children or even as toddlers. “But I didn’t realize that, so I didn’t keep up with it and I just ended up succumbing to all the negativity.”
Turning on a dime, he decided to stop dancing and focus on physics at CSU Dominguez Hills. It wasn’t until he visited the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, in 2011 to conduct research in physics for a summer internship that he reconnected with his inner dancer. He took dance classes at Norte Dame and the Lou Conte Dance Studio, home of world-renowned dance company Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
“It rekindled my passion for dance,” he said. “I saw myself improving, so I decided to take dance more seriously.”
Since then, the bulk of his dance training has been at CSU Dominguez Hills, but he has supplemented that with training at private dance studios.
In 2012, he completed a second internship in physics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Again making good use of his travels, Medina took dance classes at the Nashville School of Ballet.
“That’s when I decided that I wanted to finish up my degree in physics, but pursue a professional career in dance,” he said.
In fall 2012, the 22-year-old Gardena resident auditioned for summer dance programs with LINES Ballet in San Francisco, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, but was ultimately rejected.
“But then I auditioned for Hubbard Street. And I would say that that was my worst audition of the three,” he said. “I cried on my way home…. Three days later I was in my physics class …and I got the text that said ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.’”
The program will cost Medina about $5,000. While he is accustomed to working hard for what he wants–he has worked as a student research assistant and now as a student assistant for the sociology department–he has started a blog to raise money to attend the summer program at Hubbard Street.
A recipient of the fall 2012 Philip Johnson Scholarship awarded for academic excellence in physics, he hasn’t abandoned the idea of a professional career as an astrophysicist for NASA, though.
“I’ve been thinking if I become a professional dancer, once that’s done with, I’d like to get a master’s in physics and dance, and teach both at the college level,” he said. “It will be a challenge for me to achieve one of these things.”
Medina, who has performed in every dance concert since he has attended the university, and who will be choreographing a contemporary piece for the spring dance concert “Action/Reaction” on May 3 and 4 in the University Theatre, is already getting plenty of notice for his dancing skills outside the university.
Two invited guest choreographers who participated in the fall 2012 CSU Dominguez Hills dance concert “Laws of Motion” were so impressed with Medina’s performance in the concert that they have invited him to perform their work.
Summer Brown, a dance instructor at CSU Long Beach, has recruited Medina to perform her choreography in “Solo for Shoes,” an original contemporary piece based on Medina’s life, during the 2013 American College Dance Festival Baja Regional Conference at El Camino College on April 11-14.
“I thought this [collaboration] was great because I get to learn new ways to choreograph and new ways to move my body,” Medina said. “Your body has muscle memory. Unless somebody else gives you a new way of moving, you might not discover it.”
Professional choreographer and alumnus Michael Nickerson-Rossi (Class of ’10, B.A., theatre, dance option) also discovered Medina, inviting him to join his dance company based in Long Beach. In January Medina performed with the company’s two works choreographed by Nickerson-Rossi, “Remembering the Unremembered” and “DNA,” at the Annenberg Theatre in Palm Springs. Medina will perform a new work as part of the troupe during Celebrate Dance 2013 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on March 9, which will feature eight of the top Southern California dance companies.
“Ruben Medina is a gifted artist with many wonderful facilities he is able to access as a dancer. He can bring forth a strong technical foundation to a director/choreographer, which allows me to not ‘hold back.’ Hold back in terms of what can be set on him technically!” Nickerson-Rossi said. “I appreciate his use of strength, masculine presence in movement, dedication to dance, and his awareness to fellow dancers in my company.”
Ultimately, Medina would like to dance for Hubbard Street or Netherlands Dans Theatre in Hague, Netherlands.
Not to miss a beat, in the meantime he’s planning to audition for Jacob’s Pillow Dance Company in Massachusetts, and for the FOX network television show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“That one is just for fun,” he said.
But of his serious pursuit, the up-and-coming dancer noted, “I know it’s very competitive, but I’m going to give my all.”