These three current professionals opened up about opting for a degree first, how it impacted their careers and their favorite college memories.
Dara Oda, Texas Ballet Theater Dancer
Photo by Max Caro, Courtesy of Texas Ballet Theater
Belhaven University, BFA in dance (ballet emphasis), 2014
Growing up, Dara Oda knew she wanted to dance professionally, but she didn't feel ready to audition at the end of high school. "It was really easy to think of college as a fallback," she says. But her perception soon changed. "When I went to Belhaven and saw the level of training I would be getting, that encouraged me to pursue my dream but also be proactive and get my degree at the same time."
More than technique: For Oda, college was an opportunity to boost her technique and artistry, but she loved the other dance-related classes, like kinesiology. "It was fascinating to learn what muscles you should be engaging when you're doing a tendu or grand battement," she says. Now, she uses this knowledge to communicate better with physical therapists if she's dealing with an injury.
But first, summer: After college graduation, Oda attended Texas Ballet Theater's summer intensive on scholarship with hopes of receiving a contract. "It was a little intimidating—trying to enter a career in dance at 22 as opposed to these really talented 17- and 18-year-olds." At the end of the summer, she received a trainee contract.
Oda (center) in Garrett Smith's "Imbue." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Texas Ballet Theater
Worth the wait: "I'm grateful I took that time to prepare myself and mature in all the ways I needed to," says Oda of spending four years in college. "Now, I have colleagues that are trying to take night classes or online courses to finish degrees—it's a lot of work. I'm happy that I have that accomplished."
Going Gaga: When TBT performed Ohad Narahin's wildly contemporary Minus 16 during Oda's apprentice year, her improvisation studies from Belhaven came in handy. "I was one of the few dancers that had experience with improv and a little bit of Gaga. That gave me an opportunity to step up and stand out."
Advice for bunheads considering college: "Explore your options. There are a lot of strong college dance programs now and it's becoming more accepted. If you do choose college, it's still good to go to summer programs during your time off to continue your training, gauge how you're doing and make connections."
Eileen Frazer, Ballet Memphis Dancer
Photo by Trey Clark, Courtesy Hemline Theory
Butler University, BA in dance pedagogy, 2015
Panama native Eileen Frazer started her career at the classically based Ballet Nacional de Panama before college. But after four years, at 21, she was ready for a change. And, she admits with a laugh, "My mom wanted me to go to college." She sent audition videos to a handful of ballet programs and chose Butler University. Frazer was drawn to its diverse curriculum (which also includes contemporary, character and African dance) and had previously worked with two of Butler's faculty members in Panama.
Regaining her confidence: "Being in a professional company, I felt like I had lost a lot of confidence in myself because you always get compared to everyone else. At college, it was more about nurturing yourself and trying to make yourself a better dancer as opposed to seeing who gets to do what part."
Intro to Balanchine: Butler allowed Frazer to branch out from her earlier Cuban and Russian training. "It was nice to have at least six different teachers with different techniques and approaches," she says. It's also where she encountered the Balanchine style. "It was really, really, really hard for me." Still, it paid off: Last season she performed Balanchine's Square Dance with Ballet Memphis.
Why she chose a dance pedagogy track: "After I'm done with dancing, I'm interested in doing dance movement therapy, so this would give me a good pathway for that."
Favorite non-dance college course: Psychology. "It's nice to be able to understand other people and also understand yourself on a deeper level."
Choreography crunch: At Butler, Frazer had to speed-learn a 20-minute contemporary ballet by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano. "Seeing the product after that first week was the most fulfilling experience," she says, and it prepared her to pick up choreography quickly when she joined Ballet Memphis after graduation.
Advice for bunheads considering college: "Don't be afraid to take that route. A lot of people tell you not to go to college, but I did not have a negative experience—I got to join a professional company. If something's meant for you, it will happen sooner or later."
Luca De-Poli, Cincinnati Ballet Corps de Ballet
De-Poli with Sirui Liu in "Carmina Burana." Photo by Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet
University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, BFA in ballet, 2015
During his senior year of college, Luca De-Poli got a taste of company life. The University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music encourages juniors and seniors to secure internships in the form of traineeships or second company positions, so De-Poli's final year was largely spent at the nearby Cincinnati Ballet. He received college credit for training and rehearsing with the company five days a week from 9 am to 5 pm.
On his trainee year: "The first year in the company, you're dancing so much and you're surrounded by people who are better than you. That environment honestly pushed me a lot harder."
Straddling two worlds: During his internship, De-Poli completed his remaining academic requirements online, though he wasn't a stranger on campus. To supplement his stipend from Cincinnati Ballet, De-Poli worked a performance management job at CCM, as a key holder unlocking doors for show crews and doing odd jobs.
De-Poli performing with Samantha Griffin. Photo by Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet
On choosing a conservatory: De-Poli started dancing as a preteen, so he didn't feel ready to audition for companies at the end of high school. Craving more training and stage time, he submitted a video audition to CCM after the program's chair spotted him at his Florida performing arts high school and invited him to apply.
Leading man: De-Poli had the opportunity to dance lead roles in CCM's productions, including James in an excerpt from La Sylphide and Albrecht in the full-length Giselle. "Doing that at 19 was kind of nerve-racking, but it was a good experience," he says.
Favorite non-dance college course: "History of The Beatles was awesome."
From college to contract: Before De-Poli graduated, he received a Cincinnati Ballet II contract and has been promoted each season since. "It's everything you work for," he says. "That security is amazing."