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Company Life: Dancers Getting a Head Start on College

Mori as Snow Queen in The Nutcrakcer. Photo by Kelly Pratt Photography, courtesy Saint. Louis Ballet.

Upon high school graduation, dancers are often forced to choose between going to college or pursuing a career right away. Since a dancer's professional life is short, many who put school on hold plan to eventually go back. But with more options than ever before—from online degree programs to night classes to college programs developed solely for dancers—it is becoming much easier to pursue a degree while performing professionally. Rather than wait until retirement, many dancers are getting a head start on their education now. Three dedicated professionals explain what they've gained by going back to school, and how they've made it happen.


Tiffany Mori as Juliette. Courtesy Saint Louis Ballet.


Tiffany Mori, Saint Louis Ballet

University of Missouri—St. Louis

Four years into her ballet career, Saint Louis Ballet company member Tiffany Mori began her college career with a community college online course. “My dad was a professor, so college was always a thing in my mind even though I thought I would never go," says Mori. From that first class, Mori began to chip away at her general education requirements until she reached her community college limit. She was fascinated by chemistry, so her science professor suggested she transfer to University of Missouri—St. Louis, which offers a unique night program for science majors. (“Organic chemistry labs take five hours," explains Mori.) The program allowed her to do two incongruous things: dance during the day and go to the lab at night, sometimes from 6–11 pm.

Time management was key to balancing both worlds. Getting up early and going to a coffee shop before rehearsals helped her knock out homework. She'd also study during rehearsal breaks and during downtime in the lab. “I really liked going into class, being able to meet the professor and have colleagues at school, to learn their stories and lives," says Mori. But having to be physically present in classes required that she speak to her professors in advance about her theater-week schedules and go to office hours to put in extra time for classes she missed.

Although her schedule was grueling, Mori found the change of pace between company and campus life refreshing. “I would go into the studio in the morning very motivated and focused because of my different life at night," says Mori. Four and a half years later, she graduated with a BS in chemistry, and while she hasn't figured out her next career path, she hopes to find internships that will accommodate her rigorous schedule and perhaps enroll in graduate school as she continues to dance.

Alexandra Pullen, Freelance dancer

Arizona State University Online

A couple of years ago, Alexandra Pullen found herself caught in the web of company drama and casting disappointments. “I needed to find some balance," explains Pullen, who formerly danced with Colorado Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. She found that college courses were the perfect place to funnel her excess energy, allowing her to explore new subjects easily within the confines of her demanding schedule.

She enrolled in Arizona State University's online degree program as an English major, and takes two condensed, seven-and-a-half-week courses back to back every semester. Pullen dedicates an hour or two every day to school so that she doesn't have to catch up all weekend. “Normally after rehearsal, I go to a coffee shop and work until 8 or 9 pm," she says.

All of her classes are online, but ASU provides an advisor for over-the-phone check-ins and tutoring. “I still have deadlines and due dates," she says, “but it's more realistic with my schedule. I travel a lot." Overall she finds the school to be accommodating and supportive. Plus, college has helped her find a more positive mind-set in the studio.

“I always thought I would dance until I couldn't stand up, but now I might explore other careers before I'm crippled," jokes Pullen. Last summer, she did an internship at Los Angeles Magazine during her layoff, and while she doesn't necessarily want to sit at a desk all day, she's happy to have opportunities to gain more communication and business skills.


Pullen in La Sylphide. Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Julia Rowe, San Francisco Ballet

St. Mary's College of California, LEAP Program

“It's important for an artist to have outside influences and understand things beyond the world of ballet," says San Francisco Ballet soloist Julia Rowe about her decision to start college. She recently applied to the LEAP program, a national BA-degree program affiliated with St. Mary's College of California, in which many of her colleagues were enrolled. The program, which offers a mix of in-person and online classes, was built around the demands of professional dancers. Students typically meet for four hours of classes on Sunday evenings in order to complete the 10 core courses offered by LEAP. Credits are also given for dance experience, life experience and outside accreditations, including Pilates certifications. Other general education and minor requirements (LEAP only offers a BA in dance) can be obtained through independent study, online courses or at a local community college or university.

Though it requires a little planning, Rowe has found the degree of commitment required to be minimal when compared to a more traditional college route. Dancers can move through the program at their own pace, with some finishing in under four years and others requiring a little more time.

Rowe is only a few classes in, but she's having fun daydreaming about what she may do when she retires. “I want to learn German, I love sports medicine, I love arts management," says Rowe. She's found LEAP's kinesiology course particularly fascinating, and directly applicable to her life in the studio. “I want to eventually be able to use all the years I've had in professional dance in another field."


Julia Rowe in class. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

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New York City Ballet in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Lincoln Center.

Nutcracker season is upon us, with productions popping up in on stages in big cities and small towns around the country. But this year you can catch New York City Ballet's famous version on the silver screen, too. Lincoln Center at the Movies and Screen Vision Media are presenting a limited engagement of NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at select cinemas nationwide starting December 2. It stars Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier.

While nothing beats seeing a live performance (the company's theatrical Nutcracker run opens Friday), the big screen will no doubt magnify some of this production's most breathtaking effects: the Christmas tree that grows to an impressive 40 feet, Marie's magical spinning bed, and the stunning, swirling snow scene. Click here to find a participating movie theater near you—then, go grab some popcorn.

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Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for "The Sleeping Beauty" for the 2017/18 season. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Today the Pennsylvania Ballet's board of trustees announced the appointment of Shelly Power as its new executive director. Having been involved in the five-month international search, company artistic director Angel Corella said in a statement released by PAB that he's "certain Shelly is the best candidate to lead the administrative team that supports the artistic vision of the company." Power's official transition will begin in December. This news comes at the end of a few years of turmoil and turnover at PAB, including the departure of former executive director David Gray in June.

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Tiler Peck with Andrew Veyette in "Allegro Brillante." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.

"I was particularly excited when I saw my name on casting for Allegro Brillante in 2009," remembers principal dancer Tiler Peck. "Balanchine had said Allegro was, 'everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes,' and of course that terrified me." To calm her fear, Peck followed her regular process for debuts: begin by going back to the original performers to get an idea of the quality and feeling of the ballet and ballerina. "It is never to imitate, but rather to surround myself with as much knowledge from the past as I can so that I can find my own way," says Peck.

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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT also offers sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast throughout the year.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

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