Plato vs Balanchine
Dancers are stupid. The college dance major is a sellout. They have a degree for a low-paying field, and a four-year delay. The student may never see the footlights after graduation. And the professional dancer is ignorant: they don’t have a degree; their brain is in their feet; they don’t prepare for the future.
Such are the stereotypical assumptions of many weighing the pitfalls between career and college. The old school thought that one distracted from the other kept each in isolation. But can’t these camps coexist?
“A part of me felt like I was giving up, or hadn’t tried hard enough,” says Alanna Fisher, a dancer who chose college over a career. The University of Utah ballet major devoted most of her life to dance, training at a ballet boarding high school and attending summer programs at the School of American Ballet, Miami City Ballet, and internationally. “I really wanted to experience something new,” she says. But when surrounded by bun-head ballet buffs, considering college appeared to be a sin.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Fisher says of the 19 credit hours she takes in order to double major. “And I honestly have no idea what a BFA in Ballet is going to do for me in my ballet career or later in my life.” Yet she is confident in her pursuit and thrives off preparing for dual careers. “Even though it makes it even harder to stay on top of academics, I like when we have performances because it makes me feel more like I’m in a company.”
The college experience can enrich an artist. Forget studying Shakespeare to understand the ballerina’s role of Juliet. Discussing philosophy, unveiling literature, and self-discovery through writing all stretch a dancer’s capacity to breathe meaning into their work.
“My classes are a much needed distraction from the sometimes frustrating company world,” says New York City Ballet corps de ballet member Devin Alberda. “I find that having something to focus on besides my dancing makes the stresses of casting and the pressures of my workload more manageable.” He squeezes in two courses per semester at Fordham University while performing at New York State Theater and touring internationally with the company.
Even when ballet gets hectic he appreciates his school work. Often he is cast in a role on short notice. “When you have school work and other non-dance related concerns, it forces you to be calm and relax into the part, ignoring the stress of getting thrown in, and focusing on dancing to the best of your ability,” he notes. Both Fisher and Alberda agree they are happiest at their busiest; a trait innate to many dancers.
Majoring in dance is not the only way to integrate education. Schools from Harvard to The University of Missouri offer online or distance education courses in nearly any subject: neurobiology, abnormal psychology, creative writing, American civilization, and more. Working at your own pace rather than slumping in a classroom allows for added valuable studio time.
“The company laughs at me while I sit on the side of the stage reading American History books,” giggles Sabra Perry, a dancer with Complexions for nine years. A former member of the National Ballet of Canada, Perry works towards her BA Degree at Empire State College between seasons at The Joyce and extensive national touring.
“Sometimes it seems like too much. It’s stressful when you’re getting ready for a tour and trying to get courses done, but with independent study I know I can catch up later.” She meets with professors four or five times per semester to get a head start on her education. “When I stop performing I don’t want to feel like I’m jumping off a cliff!” she explains.
“You lose everything – your identity, your friends, your structure,” says LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals) director Mark Baird of finishing a dance career. “It was very important to help students discover new areas of interest and passions.” Launched in 1999, LEAP offers courses that meet once per week, leading to a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Performance Studies.
In addition to convenient scheduling for the busy performer, Baird believes that “one of the benefits of the program is the acknowledgment of the work students have already done in their dance careers and in their lives.” Dancers are fluent in technique and can “test out” of college level dance courses the way one might do with a foreign language course. They also earn credits quickly through prior learning experience, allowing degree completion in three to four years.
LEAP remains affordable for dancers on low salaries, staying around $22,000 for the full degree program. Students also qualify for grants from Career Transition For Dancers (CTFD). “Our scholarships are the heart of the organization, but our one-onone counseling is the marrow,” says Executive Director Alexander Dubé.
Serving 3,900 dancers nationwide, CTFD is the lifeline for struggling dancers without direction outside of the dance world. Dubé believes performers already possess enviable life skills that transfer to “real life.” “Dancers are versatile, presentable, disciplined, punctual, committed, and quick learners, which makes them an ideal employee that any employer would embrace.”
Career Counselor Lauren Gordon adds, “An emotional tool we always [aim] to offer from session to session is hope. This is a journey of rediscovering who you are and finding the skills and tools to move to another equally rewarding career.” Life (and dance) demands a constant learning process, and now the professional and the student are one and the same.
Text by Taylor Gordon
Illustrations by Anjuli Bhattacharyya