When not in rehearsal, Hansen studies business at DePaul University. Herbert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

Dancing Towards a Degree: Elizabeth Hansen's Double Duty as a Business Major and Joffrey Ballet Dancer

This story originally appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of Pointe.

As dancers, we give everything we have to our careers. We dedicate so much time and energy to our greatest passion in life that we often forget it won't last forever. But at some point we need to plan for life after ballet. After several years at the Joffrey Ballet, I felt it was time to make some concrete plans for the future. Family members began asking what I wanted to do after my ballet career, and I'd reply, “I have absolutely no idea." Since I've wanted to earn a degree, I decided college would be the best place to figure it out.

About two years ago, I enrolled at DePaul University in Chicago. It has an excellent adult program that provides faculty mentors and career counselors, along with a flexible class schedule. Going to school part-time while dancing full-time has been challenging, yet very rewarding—happily, I am now halfway toward attaining my bachelor's degree.

When I started at DePaul, I didn't have a particular focus or major in mind. I began with an attitude of exploration. As dancers, we tend to focus all of our energy on our classes and rehearsals and sometimes overlook the outside world. I wanted to learn new subjects and gain skills in areas where I had little experience. I've had a blast completing assignments such as analyzing The Beatles' music, or writing a social media marketing plan. Each class has opened up my mind to new ideas and concepts. Not only has this exposure helped me find a new career path, it's given texture to my artistry. For instance, last year I took a class called Global Leadership that dealt with navigating cultural diversity in the business world. Since the Joffrey is very internationally diverse, it helped me relate better to my peers in the studio. But more than that, it cultivated empathy and compassion, helping me appreciate cultural differences on a deeper level. I now try to bring that out through my dancing.

While I attend classes on campus during the summer when I have time off, during the season I complete all of my classes online. That gives me the flexibility necessary for working around a busy performing schedule. Online learning lets me take things at my own pace, though I often wish I could be in the classroom with other students—I meet so many interesting people through DePaul's program.

College is a major time commitment, and I've had to get creative when organizing my schedule. I sneak in study time throughout the workday: during the 15-minute break after company class, my lunch hour and any breaks between rehearsals. I study in the evenings and on weekends as well, and even find that long days at the theater bring opportunities to do homework. From time to time, I've even watched a live lecture on my computer while sewing a pair of pointe shoes! Taking two classes at a time is enough to give me momentum, yet not more than I can handle. And I always try to work in some downtime, such as a meal out with friends or a manicure. With such a packed schedule, it's important to make time for relaxation.

After taking a wide variety of classes, I decided to major in business. While somewhat of a radical shift from dance, I really enjoy this subject in part because it's so different from what I currently do. The fact that business is a broad field requiring a range of skills appeals to me. I loved taking economics and statistics because they're so practical and logical. Just like I wake up my muscles during barre, through my schooling I'm waking up other parts of my brain—I now see how the deliberate, step-by-step process I use to approach dancing is applicable to my future degree. Ultimately, my goal is to work in arts administration, in either development or operations. My dance experience will give me an edge, because I also understand the artistic side of the business.

Of course, I couldn't do this alone. I'm very thankful for the support of the Joffrey's artistic staff, particularly artistic director Ashley Wheater. They've not only encouraged me to pursue a degree, but take an interest in my studies. Several of my coworkers are in college, too—one of whom, Raul Casasola, has become an important part of my support system. He's studying journalism, and the two of us sit together and do homework in a small, sunny conference room in our building. Everyone knows that when we're in our “office," it's study time! I love that I can share my outside life with my Joffrey family—to have my coaches and peers cheer me on provides that extra little push I occasionally need.

So much of my identity has been wrapped up in my career, but college is helping me discover who I fully am. I have talents and interests that I wasn't aware of before, and I now look forward to what the future holds instead of fearing it. When the time comes, I'm confident that I'll be ready to write the next chapter in my life.

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