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Pinellas native reaches highest rank at America’s most prestigious ballet

Gibbs High alum Calvin Royal III is now a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre in New York.
Calvin Royal III performs in "Apollo" in 2019.
Calvin Royal III performs in "Apollo" in 2019. [ ROSALIE O'CONNOR | Courtesy of Calvin Royal III ]
Published Feb. 24
Updated Feb. 25

The last time Calvin Royal III appeared in the pages of this newspaper was the day of his final performance with the St. Petersburg Ballet Company 15 years ago.

The rising high school senior was leaving his home in Palm Harbor and his classes at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg to move to New York, “essentially alone,” at age 17. There he would begin training at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre.

Today Royal remembers those days as “an overwhelming leap into the unknown.”

“I didn’t move to New York thinking I was going to go to school and then the next year I was going to get into the company,” he said. “All I knew was, I got a scholarship and we’ll see how it all goes.”

It worked out. Royal did join American Ballet Theatre’s junior company a year later, then spent years as a soloist in the main company. American Ballet Theatre promoted him to principal dancer, the highest rank in one of America’s most prestigious dance companies, in September.

Calvin Royal, then 17, dances with Gabriela Johnson, then 14, during a rehearsal at the Academy of Ballet Arts in St. Petersburg on May 31, 2006.
Calvin Royal, then 17, dances with Gabriela Johnson, then 14, during a rehearsal at the Academy of Ballet Arts in St. Petersburg on May 31, 2006. [ DUNKLEY, WILLIAM | Tampa Bay Times ]

Rewind the clock to 2006, and, he says, it might have never happened. Royal had a scholarship for his classes in New York, but not his other expenses.

As the St. Petersburg Times story from June 4 of that year noted, he and his mother, Tina Royal, were navigating the hellish labyrinth of Manhattan apartment hunting. He laughs now, remembering that they’d budgeted $800 a month for food, transportation, utilities and rent on a one bedroom apartment in one of the world’s most expensive zip codes. It was a fantasy.

A week before moving, he said, they realized he might not be able to go. They alerted the school. A few days later came an offer from a woman with a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. She and her daughter would take one room. Royal and another dancer could share the other. He said yes before he even knew the details.

Calvin Royal III in 2020
Calvin Royal III in 2020 [ MYESHA EVON ]

These days, having reached the pinnacle of his artform, and with slightly more time on his hands due to the coronavirus pandemic, Royal, 32, said he’s been reflecting and putting down on paper pivotal moments in his story.

“My life would be completely different had I not gone to New York, and I might not have gone had I not found the simple thing of having a roof over my head,” he said. “But a lot of those moments came much earlier.”

Royal remembers early on his grandmother, Linda Roberts, driving him and his brother around in the car playing classical music on the radio to help them fall asleep. When he was 11, she bought him a Yamaha keyboard.

The keyboard made him want to study music. That led to his enrollment in John Hopkins Middle School’s magnet arts program.

If he had not been at John Hopkins, he would never have run into the school’s dance teacher the day she asked him to fill in for another dancer in their year-end performances, and if he had not performed in the Chocolate Nutcracker in Clearwater, she might not have thought of him.

Had he not told that teacher yes, she would never have told him later about auditions for the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High.

“And if I hadn’t auditioned for Gibbs, I don’t know if I’d have trained in ballet, which led to the Youth America Grand Prix competition,” which led to him being spotted on stage in New York, which led to his scholarship.

Royal’s success, of course, is far more than a series of fateful decisions. To say that ballet is demanding at his level is a laughable understatement. It started with those 5:30 a.m. bus commutes from northern Pinellas County to Gibbs and youthful weekends spent training all day long. It only got harder. Even among his elite peers, Royal is known for his resilience and preparation.

There are also the intangibles that were there from the beginning.

“To be perfectly honest, from day one, there was an artist standing in front of me,” Suzanne Pomerantzeff, then a teacher at Gibbs and director of St. Petersburg Ballet Company told the Times in 2006. “... what’s so beautiful about him is his soul. Every fiber of him is an artist.”

Royal is the second Black man to attain the rank of principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, and the first in decades.

In 2019, as a soloist, he and Misty Copeland became the first Black couple ever to dance leads together for American Ballet Theatre when they performed in Harlequinade.

“It was a huge step forward for visibility,” Royal said, “but even then we were kind of these caricature roles in the production.” The role he was really looking forward to — the one he has wanted for years — was Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.

He was slated to debut as Romeo alongside Copeland in the fall season, as well as other title roles, until the pandemic canceled the company’s live performances.

Royal instead spent the year staying in shape at home, then performing in American Ballet Theatre’s virtual season, which included a history-making lead in the love story Touché, the 81-year-old company’s first all-male pas de deux.

He also programmed and choreographed for an outdoor festival, and found fulfillment in teaching children, something he did not normally have time for. He was recorded dancing in performances that were shown in hospitals.

“He volunteered for so much,” said Laura Miller, a spokeswoman for American Ballet Theatre.

And in the summer, when nationwide protests for racial justice became part of an ongoing reckoning within American institutions, he was a leader of conversation inside the company.

“Both with our changes during the pandemic, and when everything exploded with BLM, he was on every call we had, a part of every idea,” Miller said. “He made it a learning experience for the company, and talked about how ballet is such a lily white art form and how to democratize it. That six Black dancers is not good enough. He raised some eyebrows, and, not jumping up and down in protest, but in his way, said hey, let’s really talk about this internally. ... When we brought in speakers, and changed policy, Calvin was the thread throughout.

“But in the meantime, any opportunity he had to dance, he danced.”

Calvin Royal III at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, N.Y. in 2020.
Calvin Royal III at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, N.Y. in 2020. [ QUINN WHARTON | Courtesy of Calvin Royal III ]