Best of Both Worlds: Balancing Dance and Academics

September 17, 2007

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been both a student and a dancer. Naturally, some days I feel more like a dancer, inspired to put on pink tights and pointe shoes and channel all my energy into a long Le Corsaire rehearsal. Other days, though, I feel like a student, wanting to read and take copious notes on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The intellectual challenges I face at school are just as exciting and inspiring to me as the physical and spiritual ones I face in the studio. Without either my artistic side or my academic side, I wouldn’t be complete. One part balances the other in a delicate relationship between mind and body.

But balancing dance and academics was not always easy for me, and as I began college, I suspected it would remain a challenge.

I first encountered the dilemma of having a dual-focused life at age 13. At the time, I had been enrolled at the School of American Ballet for six years, but was also an eighth grader at The Brearley School—a highly competitive private school for girls in NYC. Because both schools required an intense level of dedication, my schedules began to overwhelm me and I knew I would have to make a decision between the two.

I had close friends and wonderful teachers at SAB and it felt like home. Also, attending SAB was a major link to the professional dance world. But at the same time, I was excited about my academic school. Its reputation is outstanding, and after two years there I had already fallen in love. I was drawn to the small class sizes, the liveliness of the students and everyone’s excitement about learning. I was caught: two prestigious schools, one for dance and one for academics.

I tried to seek advice from other people, but every dancer I spoke to urged me to stay at SAB, while every non-dancer said that there was no way I could leave Brearley. At this point, I knew I just had to listen to my gut. I finally made up my mind to leave SAB, but I didn’t leave ballet. I enrolled at the School at Steps (at Steps on Broadway)—a decision I couldn’t have been happier with.

Four years later, when I began looking at colleges, I knew that I didn’t want to dance professionally, but I also needed to take into consideration that I still wanted dance to be a major part of my life. At first I didn’t know if I wanted to enroll in a dance conservatory or an academic college with a good dance program, but I finally decided on the latter. I figured I had been able to balance my two passions pretty well up to this point, so there was no stopping me now. Maybe I’d even be able to expand my knowledge of dance into criticism and choreography in college!

During spring break of my junior year in high school, my dad took me on a road trip. We drove around and visited more than 20 colleges in two weeks. Finding a good school with the level of ballet I was used to was not easy, and at times very frustrating—but I soon learned that they do, indeed, exist. I took ballet classes at every school I was interested in to get a real sense of the students, the teachers, the different styles and levels, and the overall feeling of the class. I learned about each school’s performing opportunities and repertoire, and I spoke with current students about what they liked (and disliked) about their programs. After all, this is where I’d be spending the next four years of my life.

Finally, I chose Vassar College. Since my first visit there, I’ve known it was the perfect school for me, which is why I applied early. At Vassar, I dance almost every day and have many chances to perform throughout the year. In my freshman year, I took ballet and pointe classes, but I also performed modern and jazz pieces. Last year, Donald McKayle came to work with some students and Mark Morris is coming this year. We also had Clinton Luckett, ballet master at American Ballet Theatre, as a guest ballet teacher for one class, which was a lot of fun.

Now, as a sophomore, not only do I still love ballet, I’ve matured from having to deal with the tension ballet creates when set against the pressures of college. It helps that I usually have all of my academic courses in the morning so that afternoons and evenings can be devoted to ballet classes and rehearsals. (I usually do my homework at night after I’m finished with dance and dinner, but I often find time to read and study in between classes, too.) I’ve learned to organize my time, energy and devotion. I’m not sacrificing one passion for the other. In fact, it’s the duality and the ability to bounce one off the other that I cherish most. Although I have not yet chosen a major, I took Intro to Sociology my freshman year and loved it, so I’ll probably end up majoring in that. At Vassar, I’m getting a wonderful education while dancing even more than I did at home. I’ve met so many other students at school who are in the same situation as me: We love to learn, and we love to dance. And at Vassar, we don’t have to give up either one.


Sophie Alpern is a student at Vassar College.