Thomas Phelan is a joyful, even manic presence. His gusto and vitality seem boundless—he often literally jumps for joy. When we were talking about his life recently, I asked him what on earth he would have done with all his physical energy if he had gone into mathematics (a one-time ambition) instead of a dancer. He just laughed.
In high school where he grew up in Fort Collins, CO, he “sort of followed what others suggested, do or don’t do this”—football, cheerleading, swimming, diving, tumbling.
It wasn’t until college, at Colorado State University, though, that he tried dance as such. He was more or less a psych major at the time, but took a jazz class and went on to become a dance major. His parents (mother a biologist, dad in horticulture), were supportive, even if they did wonder how he would make money dancing, esp as he started pretty late. He thought he might teach, which he loves, or choreograph at some point, which he has gone on to do some of. His dance teachers at CSU asked him if he’d ever though of performing? “Not really,” he said. But they convinced him that “If you work very hard, we could get you hired.”
He graduated, and as it turned out, right out of college he was asked to join Alaska Dance Theatre. “It was so surreal,” he thought, “You’re going to pay me to do this!?”
And he loved Alaska, the people, and the work—“so cool, so fun, so interesting!” For two years kept learning, overcoming new dance challenges and enjoying the out of doors.
Then last summer, some dancers from Anchorage were going down to Seattle for the Whim W’Him audition and said “Want to come along?” Thomas wasn’t necessarily looking for a new job, but he’d never been to Seattle before. He did some research and liked all the mountains and natural landscape nearby, a feature common ground to the other places where he has lived and felt at home, and was intrigued by the idea of checking out life in a city. Thomas also watched some Whim W’Him videos and was much intrigued. “I thought,” he says, “that is something I can do—and want to do.” He found the audition and the company members who participated to be great fun and had such a good time that he was thrilled when Olivier asked if he wanted to join the company. With savings from Alaska and the Whim W’Him salary, he could last at least through May. And so he joined up.
Thomas’s late start in dance, along with his native enthusiasm make him continually amazed at his good fortune and the fascinating and exciting turns his life has taken.
He’s touched and grateful for the welcome he’s found in Seattle and at Whim W’Him.
His eagerness helps recharge the dancers, even when the days are long and work hard. “Every day,” he says, with almost giddy zeal, “I learn something new about dancing!”
First and last four photos by Bamberg Fine Art Photography