Thinkstock.

Let's Talk Tuition: Three Students Get Candid About Their Training Expenses and Making Ends Meet

As if the road towards a dance career wasn't demanding enough, the costs associated with intensive pre-professional training also add up quickly. Suddenly, the price tag on becoming a dancer seems like a daunting obstacle that working hard in class can't overcome. In addition to school tuition (academic as well as dance), there's the cost of dancewear, shoes, auditions, competition fees and coaching. For those training away from home, housing and living expenses also factor into the overall price. For many students and their families, finding a way to pay for it all takes strategizing and soul-searching.

"It's challenging to fund your training," says Philip Neal, artistic director of Next Generation Ballet in Tampa, Florida. There are ways to make it more affordable, he notes, but it can take creative thinking. "Some of our students needed to work part-time to help pay for their training, but restaurant jobs were too physically draining, so they devised jobs requiring only an online presence. I'm proud of their proactive solutions."


Scholarships, side jobs and even crowdfunding are all good resources for students needing help with finances. But the key is to get a clear picture of what your options are before you enroll in a serious pre-professional program so that you can plan ahead and budget. We profiled three ambitious students in different training programs to find out what they're paying for and how.


Abadi in class at School of Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo by Ruby Mae Lefebvre, Courtesy OBT.

Zoe Abadi, 16, School of Oregon Ballet Theatre

Tuition: About $4,000. Abadi receives a $1,000 need-based scholarship off the regular full tuition of $5,000.

Housing and food: Abadi lives at home and eats most meals there, but she gets a small allowance of $10–$12 a week from her parents for snacks during long days at the studio or theater.

Shoes: About $450 a month for pointe shoes, ribbons, elastics and shipping costs. Her Freed Classics run about $80 a pair, and she goes through more during Nutcracker and summer intensives.

Academics: Abadi switched from a private school to Oregon Connections Academy, an online public school with no tuition, to save money for her ballet training.

Student contribution: Abadi has a minimum-wage part-time job in a retail store at a local mall, earning her about $60 a week. She's also turned her photography hobby into a paying gig. "I do audition photos for other students at OBT, or just fun artistic dance shots, and I do senior portraits for yearbooks." Abadi charges $30 for a two- to three-hour dance shoot, and $15 an hour for school portraits. The income helps her pay for leotards and dance supplies.

She also launched a GoFundMe campaign to fund her summer intensive at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. "I have a lot of extended family in Asia who don't know a lot about ballet, but when they read my description and learned about what I do, they decided to support me." Abadi surpassed her goal of $4,000, which paid for her summer program, with some leftover for the following school year.


Held with Colin Canavan in Walnut Hill's "Nutcracker." Photo by Sabi Varga, Courtesy Walnut Hill.

Avery Held, 17, Walnut Hill School for the Arts

Tuition, housing and academics: Walnut Hill School for the Arts, a performing arts high school in Natick, Massachusetts, costs $59,600 annually for boarding students. Held has a partial scholarship that reduces her tuition to $12,660 per academic year, including room, board, academics and dance classes. Depending on which academic courses she takes, textbooks cost an additional $100–$200.

Shoes and supplies: About $2,500 per year for her Suffolk pointe shoes. Held gets a new set of leotards and tights to adhere to Walnut Hill's dress code every two years, spending about $250.

Travel expenses: Walnut Hill's proximity to Boston makes traveling to summer program auditions relatively inexpensive. Held buys discounted student tickets to take the train or carpools with friends. She estimates audition fees and travel expenses, including visits home to Indiana, totaled about $800 last year. Her parents use a travel rewards credit card to accrue miles, which they use for tickets to fly her home for holidays, as well as to come see her perform at Walnut Hill.

Student contribution: Held works at the school's gym for a couple of hours a week, earning minimum wage (about $11 an hour in Massachusetts). She picks up extra shifts if her schedule permits. "I mainly clean the equipment and make sure everyone's using the machines right, but what's good is that if not many people are in there, I can get some homework done," she says. "It's about $25 a week for spending money here at school, which helps a lot."


Yee in Next Generation Ballet's "Nutcracker." Photo by Soho Images, Courtesy NGB.

Luke Yee, 18, Next Generation Ballet

Tuition: Yee, a high school graduate, is on a full merit scholarship at the Next Generation Ballet. (Normal tuition costs $4,100.) NGB charges students an all-inclusive fee of $805–$1,060 for the Youth America Grand Prix competition, depending on how many variations they are entering. The fee includes coaching, YAGP's registration fee and costume rentals.

Housing and food: Originally from Texas, Yee shares a two-bedroom apartment with two other NGB students, paying $450 a month in rent. He spends about $120 a month on food.

Transportation: One of Yee's roommates has a car, so they carpool to the studio and a weekly Walmart shopping run. Instead of paying for a share of the car's costs, Yee pitches in by doing most of the cooking.

Shoes and supplies: About $60 a month, mostly for dance shoes and tights.

Student contribution: Yee receives $200 a month from his parents to cover food and other miscellaneous expenses like haircuts, cleaning supplies, or occasional Uber trips. Yee wanted to help out, so after a stint working at Starbucks proved unsustainable (waking up at 4 am to work a five-hour shift before ballet was too much on his body), he developed an online math tutoring program. "It's fairly lucrative in terms of the amount of money I could make in relation to the hours," he explains. "I can tutor from my apartment to anywhere in the U.S." He charges a minimum of $30 an hour, bringing in around $800 a month. "But around finals time I can nearly double that."

Latest Posts


Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

8 Virtual Dance Performances to Watch in May

As we push into May, the ballet world presents another lineup of exciting digital performances. We've rounded up a few of the season finales, collaborations and special programs coming up this month. Check them out below!

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks