This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Aerys Merrill graduated from University of North Carolina School of the Arts with a BFA in ballet performance in 2018.
As a high school student, Aerys Merrill knew she wanted to dance professionally, but her parents wanted her to go to college. After hearing about the University of North Carolina School of the Arts from a friend, she decided to apply. Merrill soon found that the program was exactly what she needed: She could earn a degree and study a variety of academic subjects while continuing her rigorous ballet training. "It ended up being the best four years of my life in preparing me for a professional career," she says. "It's a time that I really cherished."
Always prepared: Merrill appreciated the career-focused atmosphere of UNCSA, recalling one of her favorite teachers, Jennet Zerbe. "She really pushed us in our training, but she also treated us like professionals and wanted us to be as prepared as we could," says Merrill, remembering how Zerbe would share combinations from classes at the Royal Ballet School, where she had received additional teaching certifications.
Aerys Merrill (front) in La Bayadère
Betsy Mann Photography, Courtesy Merrill
The whole package: Merrill spent her mornings in classes like history and English before daily technique and pointe or variations. She then dove into dance electives, like music theory, business perspectives, anatomy and biology, before rehearsals. "We learned how to really listen to music, make resumés, go through contracts and understand the body, which is so important for dance."
A shared effort: Collaborating with fellow UNCSA students for the annual Nutcracker was rewarding. "The design and production majors would do the sets and stage work, and the musicians played the music," says Merrill. "I remember thinking, Wow, this is so amazing that all of us students are coming together to put on this show!"
Jumping across the pond: Postcollege, Merrill danced with Atlanta Ballet II and Ballet Memphis before joining England's Northern Ballet for its 2020–21 season. "I've known that I've wanted to dance professionally in Europe, even before college," she says. Merrill was invited to take company class in person after she sent Northern Ballet her performance footage. The director offered her a corps de ballet position on the spot.
Advice for dancers considering college: "I've noticed that companies now really like—and are even looking for—that extra education behind the experiences that you've had. Having college on your resumé is helpful in a professional career because you'll have more knowledge under your belt."