College or Contract?

February 26, 2008

Are you torn between going to college and pursuing a professional dance career? Do you think you can’t have it both ways? Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” issue. With a little extra commitment, you can continue your education and dance professionally at the same time.

I am one of those nerds who loves school almost as much as I love ballet. So when I was offered a corps contract with the San Francisco Ballet at 16, I decided to pursue my education AND accept full-time employment with the company. I finished my last year at the Professional Children’s School in NY (via “snail mail” and fax machines) and then enrolled as a part-time student at the University of San Francisco. I took just one class a semester, usually in the morning before company class or in the evening after rehearsals. During especially grueling seasons, I took online classes through UC Berkeley so I wouldn’t feel the pressure of having to maintain regular physical attendance. But I managed to pile on credits…and I worked with brilliant choreographers, performed in opera houses all over the world, and danced my geeky little heart out.

Here are some things I learned along the way. These tips might help if you choose to balance your dancing with college courses:

    * Don’t overload yourself! If you have some important roles or a major tour coming up, consider taking the semester off. You can always enroll in another class, but you can’t get a performance “do-over”.

    * Email your professor before the semester starts to make him/her aware of your situation. Most will understand that you might have to miss a few classes and will be impressed with your sense of discipline and responsibility. But if they’re not, pick another class!

    * Take advantage of your summer lay-off and enroll in some courses – most schools offer 6 or 12-week sessions. You can take ballet class in the morning and then crank out some credits in the afternoon.

    * Start with general education courses. These are the easiest to transfer if you choose to finish your degree at another school.

Earning your degree this way might take a little (or a lot) longer than the average 4-year plan, but it’s worth it! You’ll stimulate your mind, become a well-rounded person, and meet people outside the very small dance world. Studying in college will also help your artistry – each time I dance the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, for example, I go back to the play’s text and research her character development. My studies always seem to benefit my dancing in one way or another.

This May, I will graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in English. I transferred most of my CA credits, took some evening classes, and still maintained a full-time schedule with the Pennsylvania Ballet. Not once did I sacrifice my education or my dream of dancing professionally…I’m living proof that you CAN have both!