Times have changed. College used to be seen as incompatible with a ballet career. But dancers, with their fierce determination, are changing the rules—and doing it on their own terms. Many professionals enroll in school part-time. Other dancers go the four-year–college or conservatory route. Each path has its own challenges, but with perseverance, all are feasible.

Kristina Bentz
The Juilliard School

When Kristina Bentz decided to head to college, her ballet teachers thought she was making a mistake. “I didn’t see it that way,” says Bentz. “Dance is a short career. You need academics to back it up.” Both a talented ballet dancer and accomplished academically, she chose Juilliard because the conservatory setting allowed her to spend most of her time dancing, and, through Juilliard’s Columbia University/Barnard College exchange program, she could take challenging liberal arts courses as well.

Her daily schedule is packed with classes in ballet and modern, plus—depending on the day—partnering, Alexander technique, composition or dance electives. Rehearsals take up almost every weeknight. In addition to one course at Columbia, she has two or three dance-related academics per semester. “One class, called Elements of Performing, helped me realize that the slightest thing, like eye focus, can enhance or detract from a performance,” she says. Bentz works on homework at night and on weekends. Sometimes, though, the long days get the better of her. “I get worn out and frustrated a lot,” she admits. “I try to stay positive by giving myself pep talks.”

But her modern classes have piqued her interest, and the former bunhead now hopes to join a company like Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet or Complexions after graduation. (Juilliard grads grace both company rosters.) Says Bentz, “Now I like not being on my leg all the time.”

Erica Johnston
Butler University

Erica Johnston had her heart set on Butler since middle school, when a ballet teacher recommended its dance program. Johnston was impressed with their student performance company, Butler Ballet, and the high caliber of their dancers. (Recent alumni dance with Louisville Ballet, Ballet San Jose and Sarasota Ballet.) She also liked the university’s high academic standards and small size. “I think that’s important in terms of student-faculty relationships,” she says.

She enrolled as a dance performance major, and is working on a minor in marketing. Johnston admits that she finds the dance program’s technical standards intimidating. “The faculty comes from all over the world,” she says, “so I’ve had to adapt quickly to many different styles. And they don’t let you slack—they demand excellence.”    

Her day begins with academics, such as sociology or Laban Movement Analysis, followed by jazz or modern. After lunch, she has a writing class, then ballet, pointe, piano and rehearsals. She has additional rehearsals on Saturdays, too. She carries her laptop at all times so she can squeeze in homework during rehearsal breaks or between classes. On weekends, she enjoys spending time with students from other departments to decompress. “We get to have a life outside of dance, too.”

After graduation, Johnston, who is 5' 11", hopes to join a contemporary ballet or modern company likes LINES or Mark Morris Dance Group. But regardless of where she ends up, she’s glad she’ll have a degree to back her up. “I’m wide open to any opportunity,” she says.

Claire Kretzschmar
Fordham University

Claire Kretzschmar always knew one thing for certain: She wanted to dance. When New York City Ballet offered her an apprenticeship last November, she didn’t think twice about saying “yes.” But she was also thinking ahead. “Going to college part-time will make the inevitable transition to a new career easier,” she says.

She enrolled at the Fordham College of Liberal Studies, a special program for working adults at Fordham University. Not only is her school conveniently located one block from the theater, but the course offerings also fit into her performance schedule. Now in the corps, Kretzschmar limits herself to two classes per semester, scheduling one on Monday, her day off, and the other for Tuesday and Friday mornings before company class. She typically does a bit of homework after getting home from performances around 10 or 11 and finishes the rest in the morning. 

She hasn’t chosen a major yet, but has taken a wide variety of classes in English, science and even theater. Kretzschmar feels school gives her an added perspective that she believes enhances her dancing. “Sometimes I’ll apply a character’s feelings from a novel to a certain ballet,” she says. “College also gives me another focus, so I’m not always worrying about dance.”

Kretzschmar hopes to graduate in six years—and since she was able to transfer high school advanced placement credits, she’s already a sophomore. She wants to perform as long as possible before transitioning to another career related to dance. “Or maybe something different!” she says. “I just know that I want to earn a degree so that when my performing career is over I’ll be able to do something I love just as much.”
 
Amy Brandt is Pointe’s "Ask Amy" columnist.



























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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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