Australian-born Jessica Raffa, 24, has found stardom as a featured dancer with the innovative ballroom company, Burn the Floor. With stage presence galore and an intense work ethic, Jessica has climbed the ranks on a steady route. She began dancing at age 3 and paid her dues in the ensemble for years before moving to the front lines. Fortunately, this never frustrated her.
“My mother used to say I could dance before I walked,” giggles Jessica. “And since then I’ve decided to live by her motto: You can live your life day-to-day not trying or caring and end up insignificant. Or, you can strive for success and leave your mark upon the world.”
With this encouragement, Jessica began her journey as a ballet dancer at a local studio. Soon after, she moved on to the Junior Australian Ballet for more serious study. Her passion remained ballet until a ballroom studio opened near her home when she was 9. With this simple change, Jessica’s life shifted.
“I always loved ballet, but I also didn’t know anything else,” she says. “I was curious about the new studio. I took my first ballroom class with ballet shoes on!”
But even in slippers, Jessica was hooked. Fortunately, the ballroom world loved her right back. “I found that I caught people’s eye dancing ballroom more, even from a young age,” says Jessica. “It felt freer to me. I was quite cheeky and ballroom had so much diversity that I never got bored.”
So, she began competing regularly with a partner. While on the circuit, Burn the Floor choreographer Jason Gilkison noticed her. Once a year she took a private lesson with him and eventually her hard work enticed Gilkison to offer her a company contract when she was 16. But she still needed to finish high school. Right after graduation she joined the group and became a professional dancer at 17.
Jessica thinks she was hired at such a young age because of her holistic approach to performance. “Some dancers put on a character, but everything I do is real,” she says. “I give my heart and soul every time I’m on the dance floor because you never know when it can all end.”
This genuine nature was highlighted most recently in the Burn the Floor production, FloorPlay. During one number, Jessica danced completely blindfolded, emphasizing her daring spirit. She says that her technique improved dramatically and helped intensify the connection with her partner. But more importantly, she was so touched by her experience that when she returned home she contacted Vision Australia and began teaching dance to blind people all over the country.
“When I dance without sight, I am absolutely free and now I love it!” she says. “I realized that blind people should be given the opportunity to dance, too. Plus, they are so susceptible to touch and used to being led, so they really relate to it! It brings me joy to see their smiles.”
Jessica hopes to expand her philanthropy through Blindfold, an organization she started with producer Harley Medcalf. But for now, she is also thrilled to continue dancing with the company, enjoying every moment along the way.
“I joined the show as a young girl and I was definitely not in the front row,” she says. “It’s taken me seven years to be where I am now, and every night I perform I know it’s my dream come true. I appreciate every second on that stage!”
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Rodric J. Bradford is a Phoenix-based arts, business and sports writer.
Photo: Courtesy of Burn the Floor