Dancer and LEAP student Jordan Tilton takes a study break backstage.

Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Courtesy LEAP Program

Dancing While Earning a Degree: As LEAP Turns 20, 4 Pros Share How Its Unique Program Works

Claire Sheridan wanted to change the status quo. Leading up to the 1990s, she recalls, "there was a 'shut up and dance' mind-set," and as the founder of the dance program at St. Mary's College of California and a longtime teacher in professional companies, she had seen too many dancers retire with no plan for a successful career transition. "At that time, if you thought about education and the future," she says, "you were not a committed dancer. I wanted to fight that."

With the support of St. Mary's, Sheridan developed the Liberal Education for Arts Professionals program, or LEAP, an innovative liberal-arts bachelor's degree program designed especially for professional dancers. She first presented her idea to executives at San Francisco Ballet. "Kudos to that company, because they said, 'This is great,'" she says. "Eleven of the first 18 dancers who started in August 1999 were from SFB."

This fall semester marks the 20th anniversary of LEAP, which now enrolls 85 to 100 students per term at locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York (a Las Vegas branch is on pause). By spring 2020, it will have had 300 graduates. Sheridan's curriculum design awards credits for dancers' professional experience, yoga and Pilates teacher training, and for coursework completed at other institutions and via online extension. All students must complete 10 core courses through St. Mary's, but lectures, papers and exams can be scheduled around touring and performances. Dancers complete the degree on their own timeline.

Thanks to Sheridan and former program director Mark Baird, LEAP has indeed changed the status quo. "Dancers have come to expect that pursuing their education while dancing professionally is just something that's done now," says Stephanie Miller, LEAP's associate director since 2017. "And they are coming to LEAP at a younger and younger age."

Read on for four dancers' LEAP experiences.

Calvin Royal III: Soloist, American Ballet Theatre

Calvin Royal III in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon.

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

LEAP Student since 2018

Earning a degree has always been important to Calvin Royal III. He completed courses in political science, chemistry and writing at Long Island University during his three years in ABT II and as an ABT apprentice, but when he joined the corps in 2011, "I had to put it on hold because of my schedule," he recalls. "The traveling, performances, rehearsals—it was crazy."

That changed when Royal earned a promotion to soloist in 2017. "[It] gave me the confidence to say, 'If I could put in all that work and get to this level in my career, then I can explore education again,'" says the 30-year-old. Nevertheless, getting back into the swing of things was an adjustment. "I have to be focused learning new ballets for ABT's upcoming season, and on my one day off a week, I go to class for LEAP. A lot of the work is on my commute, or when I get home exhausted."

In the spring, Royal completed an online psychology course, and last fall he took Western Traditions, a seminar that entails reading and discussing literature like Maus and The Odyssey. "It wasn't just about writing the papers, it was about critical thinking and really trying to understand what the writers were trying to convey at that moment in history," he says. Taking the summer off from his studies allowed him to prepare for his fall debut in George Balanchine's Apollo. "I like to give my brain and my body a rest so that when I come back for the ABT season, I feel recovered."

Royal values education not only as a bridge to his eventual post-dance career, but also for its own sake. "As hectic as life as a performing artist can be, in the long run it's worth it to enrich your mind."

Madison Keesler: Soloist, San Francisco Ballet

Keesler with Steven Morse in Benjamin Millepied's Appassionata.

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

LEAP Student since 2010

"I want to be a leader," says Madison Keesler, 28, whose vision for the future includes arts management and public service. LEAP is a stepping stone to those goals, no matter how long it takes: She enrolled in 2010 as an SFB corps dancer, then took four years off while she was a first soloist with English National Ballet. She resumed LEAP in 2017, when she returned to the SFB corps. When chipping away at her degree feels daunting, "I remember those long-term goals—I want to make sure I have security because I have that degree."

A recent promotion to soloist has freed up more time for studying, and when SFB is on tour in Copenhagen in October and November, she'll keep up on lectures via Zoom, an online video-chatting platform. "A lot of schools don't fully know how all-consuming a ballet career is, but the people at LEAP really understand." Keesler admits that time management is a struggle, and she's learned to strategize each semester in advance. "If I have a ton of performances and a research paper, I need to do stuff ahead of time," she says. "Sometimes I'll read over the summer, so that during Nutcracker I don't have to start from scratch."

Keesler appreciates the credits LEAP awards for work experience. "We have to learn how to hold ourselves as a professional employee from a very young age. Whether it's communication skills, the discipline of holding yourself accountable for doing what's expected—we learn that on the job."

Lauren King: Soloist, New York City Ballet

King in Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

2017 LEAP Graduate

It look Lauren King a couple of years to adjust to life in the corps of New York City Ballet. Once she had it down, though, she craved a new challenge. "I love ballet, but for my own mental health I need to focus on something outside of the microcosm of dance," she says. She decided to get a college degree, and started LEAP at age 23. While she was worried about being older than her classmates, LEAP students have ranged in age from 19 to 65, and many are well into their professional careers. "It was a no-pressure entry point, and there was a lot of support," says King, now 35.

King took wide-ranging electives, from math and science to business and languages, and she found that the physical intensity of professional ballet actually fueled her. "You have that adrenaline, and you can use the physical energy to feed your brain in your downtime," she says. "I would be doing homework during an hour off, early in the morning, while putting on makeup. You fit it in wherever you can."

Nine years later, she received her diploma. "And a few months later I got bored!" She's now completing a master's degree in museum studies through Harvard Extension while dancing at her peak—in NYCB's fall season, she performed Violette Verdy's role in George Balanchine's "Emeralds." King has thrived on the dancer-student double life. "Dancers are very accustomed to focusing on what we're passionate about, so it was really easy to transfer that to school."

Katie Pivarnik, MD: Danced with New Jersey Ballet, Joffrey Ensemble, Eglevsky Ballet

Pivarnik n her graduation day at St. Mary''s College of Califrona

Courtesy Pivarnik

2010 LEAP Graduate

Katie Pivarnik completed her LEAP program in a mere 20 months. Between her decade-long performing career and the associate's degree in business administration she earned while dancing with New Jersey Ballet, she had many transferable credits. "It was a robust curriculum," she says, and LEAP's supportive environment made it easier to tackle. "Everyone was coming in at a different level—some were recent high school graduates, others had been out for a long time. It was inspiring to be with that variety of students, and we all helped each other."

LEAP's focus may be liberal arts, but it led Pivarnik to a career in science. "We took an anatomy/physiology class at the Harkness Institute—that was phenomenal. It jump-started my interest in medicine." After graduating, she completed a premed program at Columbia University and earned her MD at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. "It was a shock to be sitting in a lecture hall with 300 other students," she recalls, but LEAP had prepared her for that challenge, as well. "LEAP's smaller settings encouraged me to speak up and have an opinion. I found a voice through writing and presenting in front of peers. When I moved on to postbaccalaureate and then medical school, I had to do that all the time." Now 36 and a third-year resident at Albany Medical College, Pivarnik looks forward to practicing obstetrics and gynecology.

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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