College or Contract?

Are you torn between going to college and pursuing a professional dance career? Do you think you can’t have it both ways? Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” issue. With a little extra commitment, you can continue your education and dance professionally at the same time.

I am one of those nerds who loves school almost as much as I love ballet. So when I was offered a corps contract with the San Francisco Ballet at 16, I decided to pursue my education AND accept full-time employment with the company. I finished my last year at the Professional Children’s School in NY (via “snail mail” and fax machines) and then enrolled as a part-time student at the University of San Francisco. I took just one class a semester, usually in the morning before company class or in the evening after rehearsals. During especially grueling seasons, I took online classes through UC Berkeley so I wouldn’t feel the pressure of having to maintain regular physical attendance. But I managed to pile on credits…and I worked with brilliant choreographers, performed in opera houses all over the world, and danced my geeky little heart out.

Here are some things I learned along the way. These tips might help if you choose to balance your dancing with college courses:

    * Don’t overload yourself! If you have some important roles or a major tour coming up, consider taking the semester off. You can always enroll in another class, but you can’t get a performance “do-over”.
    * Email your professor before the semester starts to make him/her aware of your situation. Most will understand that you might have to miss a few classes and will be impressed with your sense of discipline and responsibility. But if they’re not, pick another class!
    * Take advantage of your summer lay-off and enroll in some courses - most schools offer 6 or 12-week sessions. You can take ballet class in the morning and then crank out some credits in the afternoon.
    * Start with general education courses. These are the easiest to transfer if you choose to finish your degree at another school.

Earning your degree this way might take a little (or a lot) longer than the average 4-year plan, but it’s worth it! You’ll stimulate your mind, become a well-rounded person, and meet people outside the very small dance world. Studying in college will also help your artistry – each time I dance the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, for example, I go back to the play’s text and research her character development. My studies always seem to benefit my dancing in one way or another.

This May, I will graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in English. I transferred most of my CA credits, took some evening classes, and still maintained a full-time schedule with the Pennsylvania Ballet. Not once did I sacrifice my education or my dream of dancing professionally…I’m living proof that you CAN have both!

(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)

Congratulations to Dance Spirit's 2019 Cover Model Search finalists: Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland! One of them will win a spot on Dance Spirit's Fall 2019 cover. Learn more about the dancers by clicking on their names here:

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Photo by Erin Baiano

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