Roman Baca is Marine Iraq War veteran who deployed to Fallujah from 2005 to 2006. He’s also the artistic director and co-founder of Exit12 Dance Company in New York City, which performs ballets inspired by the military experience, and a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
I started to dance when I was 17. A high school friend of mine was a ballerina, and she invited me to take class. I was accepted into Nutmeg Conservatory and moved to Connecticut to train. After dancing for several years in New York and Connecticut, I decided to join the Marines.
Part of my decision to join the Marines came from my desire to overcome my fears. As a child and teen, I had not been able to shield my family from abuse. I never wanted to be in that position again and becoming and serving as a Marine would mean I never would.
After coming back from deployment in Fallujah, I thought I was adjusting fine. I found a good job, bought a condo, got serious with my girlfriend. However, she had to sit me down and say, “You’re angry. You’re depressed. You’re anxious. Some people are really afraid of you.” She asked me if there was anything in the world I wanted to do, and I said, “Start a dance company.” And we did.
As a choreographer, I had to find my voice. I realized the only stories I wanted to tell were about the military. Mass media, movies, TV, video games—they all tend to be sensationalist and only show war in extreme combat situations. But they don’t show the day to day life of a soldier over the course of a deployment. I wanted the audience to understand the psyche of a soldier who patrols day in and day out, often bored, but is also aware that each villager could be a potential threat.
My first piece was called Habibi Hhaloua—“my beautiful, you have my eyes” in Arabic. I explored the soldier on patrol, whose mind wanders and day dreams. While two Marines patrol, six dancers appear on stage and lure the Marines away from duty. One of the Marines, often danced by me, leaves from the other, kneels, and puts down his weapon to dance with the love character. All of the light pulls away from the other individuals on stage and focuses on the Marine and his lover.
When I dance Habibi in the States, I show the audience that even in a war zone like Fallujah, there are moments of beauty and love. Even in a war zone, a soldier can forget about the constant threat of danger while watching an unparalleled sunset over the desert or seeing children play like all children do on the streets we patrolled.
Performing this piece opened my eyes to a new way that I could engage society after being separated by experiences of war. I wanted to communicate what had happened and how I felt. Dance allowed me to do so. There has been some healing in creating these ballets. Most importantly, however, dance has given me a new purpose, one that I lacking after returned home. This purpose is to share the stories of those affected by war, whether that be soldiers, families, or civilians in war-torn areas.