Image of Kayleigh Donowski and Eugenia Zinovieva sitting in front of a lighted mirror
Kayleigh Donowski ’26 and Eugenia Zinovieva ’26Photo: David DelPoio

From Ballet to Brown
A former Swan Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy hit the books

By Megan Talikoff ’25 / November–December 2023
November 7th, 2023

For me, deciding not to sign my contract again was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done,” says Kayleigh Danowski ’26, a former professional ballerina with the New York State Ballet. “Your career as a ballet dancer doesn’t prepare you for anything else in life, really.” 

Danowski landed at Brown as a RUE (Returning Undergraduate Education) student and called an old ballerina friend she knew worked for Providence’s Festival Ballet, looking for advice on navigating the city. “I was like, you’re not going to believe this,” Eugenia Zinovieva ’26 recounts, smiling—they were both headed for College Hill. 

The pair first met in ballet class during their junior year of high school at the UNC School of the Arts. After graduation, Danowski headed to the Montgomery Ballet in Alabama and Zinovieva to Festival Ballet, Providence’s company. 

Ballet dancers sign yearly contracts, so for the next decade Danowski and Zinovieva pushed hard. Zinovieva spent her career at Festival, while Danowski moved through several companies, ending in New York. Years of eight-hour rehearsal days paid dividends. Among other key roles, Danowski frequently performed the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, and Zinovieva danced the Swan Queen in Swan Lake.

Ballerinas often retire around age 30, and neither woman wanted to continue in ballet after retirement by teaching full-time or pursuing professional choreography. Moving on felt like turning her back on her life’s purpose, Zinovieva says. But as soon as they were officially out, both women say they started to realize how many opportunities lay ahead. “I felt like I had freedom I didn’t even know I needed,” Danowski says. “And I was like, oh my gosh, I can be anything!”

Today the pair can be found in the RUE lounge, a warmly lit nook on the third floor of Faunce, sipping coffee and doing homework together like in high school. Neither is sure what she wants to do after college. For now, Danowski is studying psychology and Zinovieva is an economics concentrator. Both also continue to be creative. Zinovieva choreographs dance in her spare time and Danowski is doing a second concentration in the history of art and architecture. 

When school gets hard, the duo remember what another retired dancer told them before they came to Brown: “Honestly, there is nothing that anyone could ask me to do that is as difficult as standing in fifth position at nine in the morning.”

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Related Issue
November–December 2023