From Pirouettes to Pop Star: Carolina Ballet’s McKenzie Van Oss Is Building a Second Career in Music

July 21, 2022

McKenzie Van Oss isn’t into labels. The edgy, exuberant soloist with Carolina Ballet sees herself as an evolving artist, with ballet and music taking center stage.

“I don’t label myself as a ballerina or as a musician,” says Van Oss from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she has earnestly started building a career in pop music. “When you identify as an artist, you have the freedom to express and create in any medium. These things are just part of who I am, and, therefore, I don’t have to limit myself.”

A native of Wisconsin, Van Oss studied dance, voice, guitar, ukulele and drums as a kid growing up in Green Bay. She felt a strong connection to all, but she chose to pursue ballet as a profession—relishing how it made her feel.

“What I loved about dancing was I could make the music physical and visual. Everything I felt when I was hearing music, I could put it in my body,” she says.

She attended Walnut Hill School for the Arts for her junior and senior years of high school, where, in addition to the dance curriculum, she took piano lessons. After graduating, she joined Carolina Ballet as a junior trainee in 2014. She was thrilled, but knew something was missing: music.

McKenzie Van Oss leans back on her hands with her right leg bent and propped up on pointe as she extends her left leg up with a pointed foot. She looks over her shoulder directly at the camera with a closed mouth smile and wears a metallic green pleated skirt and purple sequined bodice. Her pointe shoes are hot pink. Behind her, a wall is covered in wallpaper with panthers and tigers in the design.
Photo by Patrick Shanahan, courtesy Van Oss.

“I had a lot more time and I had a lot more creative energy that was not being used, so I started turning to my ukulele again. And I would do open mics and stuff once in a while.”

She became a trainee a year later, and, in 2016, she was promoted to the corps. When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, she used that time to focus on music—writing indie/pop songs like “Grocery Store” and “A POP Song” under her label, McKenzie Van Oss Music.

She realized pursuing her two passions fulfilled her in a way just one of them wouldn’t. Reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way during quarantine helped her realize she could be the multifaceted creative she always dreamed of.

It helped that the artists she worked with at Carolina Ballet became collaborators on her music projects. “If I wanted photographers to do artwork or cover art or music videos, or if I wanted dancers in the videos, or if I wanted them in my show,” says Van Oss, “I had all of the tools and resources at my fingertips that I never saw before.” 

She even hired principal company member Alyssa Pilger to choreograph “A POP Song,” one of her most recent self-produced music videos.

She earned a promotion to soloist in 2021, but her dance life took a hit that fall, right as Carolina Ballet was returning to live performances. She was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her T11 vertebra and a torn labrum in her left hip. Van Oss spent 12 weeks in a back brace and had to rest for two months. The lengthy recovery meant she was out for the season. But on the bright side, she had more time to build a band and get her songs produced.

“While I wasn’t able to express myself through dancing, I was able to express myself creatively through music, while resting at the same time.”

She is looking forward to the fall season at Carolina Ballet, as she pushes through physical therapy and dreams of performing again. She’s thankful for this time to both recover and create—as both continue to inspire her.

“Some people can’t be creative in two ways. It’s too exhausting,” she says. “I feel like I wouldn’t be able to live without one. Priority-wise, they’re the same. I’d be unfulfilled.”

As Van Oss looks forward, her goal is to build a strong fan base while she’s still dancing. She performs at various clubs and festivals in Raleigh, and has upcoming shows as far away as Charlotte, too. She would eventually like to get a manager to help with booking and marketing, but for now, she is loving having complete creative control. When Carolina Ballet’s season resumes in the fall, she’ll book shows around her rehearsing and performing schedule. “By the time I’m ready to retire,” she says, “I can transition into music and touring. And I can just keep creating and being happy.”