A ballet dancer is often thought of as the antithesis of a football player. Comparing these two professions is intriguing, as people commonly view them as completely different from one another. Yet, at the heart, they are quite similar. After sitting down to chat with Pacific Northwest Ballet corps dancer Leah Merchant and her older brother, Adam O’Connor, I found more similarities between the two professions than I had expected.

Originally from Mobile, Alabama, the O’Connors moved to North Carolina, where Leah began her dance training at the age of 12 at North Carolina School of the Arts. Adam, although originally more taken with baseball and basketball, began playing high school football, at which he excelled. He was recruited out of high school by William and Mary College, which he attended on a full football scholarship. Leah, in a similarly intense fashion, graduated from high school a year early, and at the age of 16 headed to New York City to attend the prestigious School of American Ballet.

The careers of a ballet dancer and a football player have limited life spans. Professional careers in these sports often begin at an earlier age than, say, a teacher’s, doctor’s, or lawyer’s career. Leah was 18 when she was hired by PNB, and Adam was just out of college when the Carolina Panthers signed him. To succeed and make it into a top ballet company or a professional football team takes extraordinary talent, dedication, and ambition. While these careers are often the hope and dream of thousands of young children, only a select few succeed at them. Clearly, ambition runs in the O’Connor blood—both Adam and Leah describe themselves as “Type A personalities, very driven perfectionists.”

When asked what overlaps they see between the two professions, Adam answers, “They are both something that you live, not something you can go home and forget about. I can empathize with and respect what ballet dancers go through. And it’s one thing when you are hurting and have to muscle through a game, but a hurting dancer—they have to go out there and still make it look good!”

Leah (anyone who knows her even a little can tell you) is a huge football fan. She views the similarities between the two as primarily pertaining to the intense focus required to achieve success. She has always looked up to and admired her brother’s focus and dedication.

PNB corps de ballet dancer Leah Merchant with soloist Jerome Tisserand in Diamonds. Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Both football and dance put an incredible amount of strain and wear and tear on the body. Requiring both physical and emotional endurance and perseverance, players and dancers push through pain, fatigue, and injury to make the most of what they know is likely to be a short career. Chronic pain and acute injury are just part of the job. Additionally, there is always the risk of a career-ending injury, which is, unfortunately, what Adam suffered while playing for the Minnesota Vikings. Tackled by an opponent during a game, his knee dislocated. The damage was severe enough to put an end to his professional career. For Leah, watching her brother lose the ability to play in the blink of an eye was a reminder of the brevity of her own career. “Once it’s done its done! I have to make the most of it while I can,” she says.

Adam, never one to sit on his laurels, is taking his early career transition in stride. Currently applying to medical school, he has been taking prerequisite courses this year and somehow also found the time to become a certified EMT. When asked what he misses about professional football, he says that he misses the competitive environment. “Your teammates are your friends that you essentially go to war with—I miss that community and the competition and physicality of the sport. I don’t miss the wear and tear, though! Being part of an elite circle of athletes can only last so long.”

Adam O’Connor, former NFL player and older brother of PNB dancer Leah Merchant.

Dancers build a similar camaraderie with each other. “Outsiders” do not easily understand the intense focus and dedication it takes to excel in a professional dance company, so dancers look to each other for support. The frustration, stress, and disappointment frequently felt by those in a professional dance company requires inside support. Who else to better understand you than those going through the same thing? The shortness of a dancer’s career only intensifies these feelings. There is so little time to achieve perfection!

Both Leah and Adam have pursued academic success in addition to their chosen careers. They have always liked school–growing up, their parents cultivated a learning environment. With her eventual career transition in mind, Leah recently earned a degree in sociology from the University of Washington.

Although distance keeps them from seeing each other as much as they’d like to, the siblings remain close. Adam was recently ordained in order to officiate Leah’s wedding on Whidbey Island this past summer.

Leah, contemplating her career and her brother’s recent transition away from football, says,  “I have been dancing my whole life. I love its constant challenges–you never achieve exactly what you want from yourself. You are always learning and growing. I love performing, and I know that once that’s gone it’s gone.”

Adam walked Leah down the aisle at her wedding this past summer.

Blog written by Sarah Ricard Orza.

Featured photo: PNB corps de ballet dancer Leah (O’Connor) Merchant with her older brother Adam.

Photos: O’Connor family photos unless otherwise noted.