Written by Alyssa Johnson
To be a successful dancer – or artist of any kind – one must be intelligent, intuitive, and innovative. It’s not surprising, then, that most dancers in high school excel academically, artistically, and athletically. While this is an absolutely wonderful reality, it does present a stressful and confusing dilemma for many young performer-scholars…what do I do at the end of my senior year?
While there are many options, two conflicting pathways seem to stick out: go to college or audition for companies?
Immediately, the opinions start rolling in. Some may have parents that are dead set on an academic pathway, while others might have parents urging for an artistic career. Academic teachers may have their own vision on how to build on academic success, and dance teachers may have already lined up summer auditions. People will say that the odds of making a successful career in dance are minuscule and it is just not worth the risk (make it a hobby!), while others will panic at the “dancer timeline” and argue college is a waste of precious years. EVERYONE has ideas on what to do next, and as a driven young dancer, it is easy to be painfully split on what to do with their young adult life.
Through all the mass noise of opinions, though, no one seems to be reminding us that this is not an either-or decision. On the contrary, this decision should open endless doors, not close huge drawbridges on an entire career pathway. YES! I am here to tell you that pursuing both an academic and artistic career is possible, and in my opinion (because everyone has them), indulging in both sides of yourself, nurturing each facet of your personality and honing different skills and strengths, is a more fulfilling choice that leads to more overall life success.
But how? How can you actively pursue both? Isn’t it impossible to give 100% to both at the same time, meaning neither pursuit ever reaches full potential? I hear you, and I offer this caveat. At some point, a choice will be made for a certain time being (note: for a TIME BEING – nothing has to be permanent…EVER), and some things will be put on hold. But! I argue that the time to make this decision is not right after high school.
Let me offer an abridged version of my story to offer more insight:
Right out of high school, I had 2 job offers for professional companies (in and out of the US), an acceptance to an arts conservatory in England, and university acceptance letters. I was a mess. My parents had their opinions (and could hold financial aid over my head), my dance instructors were already pushing me overseas, and my school counselors were basically signing my acceptance letters for me. These few months were some of the most stressful in my life, and I was convinced I was making a choice that would decide the rest of my life. Dancer… Forensic Anthropologist … Lawyer… Actress… WHAT WAS I SUPPOSED TO DO?
At the end of the day, I had to make a choice, and contrary to my belief at the time, it closed no doors and instead opened more than I could imagine. I ended up going to UC Berkeley to pursue my degree right out of high school, promising myself I would perform as much as possible and keep up my training. I figured, first off, that if I didn’t go to college right out of high school, my academic momentum would be lost and the odds of me ever going back to school were basically zero. I wasn’t ready to stop my academic development, and I really did want the chance to deeply study forensics. Also, I faced the reality that with dance, there are slimmer odds of success and a single freak injury can end a successful dance career in an instant. While the idea of a fallback has some problematic connotations, I did want the comfort of having an academic degree in my back pocket should anything ever happen and I decide to switch paths later in life (or an injury forces the shift). Mind you, I sought an academic degree for a job I would truly love should dance not prevail. As far as the conservatory went, I argued that if I was going to spend a ridiculous amount of money on an institution, I might as well spend it where I could study both dance AND academics, not just dance (after all, a dance degree doesn’t guarantee you a spot in a company and isn’t legally required for practice). *Again, these are just my opinions*
As far as the dancer timeline goes, it doesn’t exist in the way so many tend to think. Yes, at some point age forces a shift in how you engage in dance performance, but with our modern understanding of anatomy, physical therapy, cross-training, and a cultural shift to accepting older bodies on stage, the timeline to be performing at the top of your game has been greatly extended. Take for instance Julie Kent and Renee Robinson; Two incredible dancers who performed for over 20-30 years in their respective dance companies (Kent having children during her career as well)! Are there advantages to starting in a company at age 18? Of course, especially in a premiere ballet company. However, many companies nowadays are asking for older dancers who have had more life experience, as they arguably have a deeper richness and more developed understanding in their artistic qualities. Also, as adults with a few years in the “real world”, their ability to handle touring life and the stress of bills, taxes, etc. etc. is stronger simply by experience. BODYTRAFFIC, one of LA’s best contemporary companies, asks for dancers to be at least 24 when auditioning, to name one example. So, a few years in college? Definitely not messing with your chances of becoming a professional dancer.
This same concept applies to grad school, for those wondering if they need to keep momentum and go! go! go! in their academic path – when speaking to one of my professors who also happened to be on the admissions board for UC Berkeley’s graduate program, she explained that often times they prioritize applicants who are returning after a few years post-graduation from their undergraduate program. Why? Partly because they recognize societal pressure for students to keep barreling through their studies (we teach students that this is the blindly successful road…), and 9 times out of 10, it’s those students who realize halfway through the program that they aren’t happy and end up dropping out. The returning students, however, had time to go off in the world, experience life outside of the academic system, and then decide with a clear head that this (grad school) is what they really want to do next in their life. She said they were always the most successful students. So putting off higher education to pursue a dance career? Definitely not messing with your chances of becoming a scholar.
Back to me, I knew I wanted to pursue dance, so I rigorously focused in college and got a double major in three years (Forensic Anthropology and Dance & Performance Studies (because why not do both?)) – I didn’t use my college time to mess around, but instead used it as a rapid sponge that prepped me with tools for the future. Like all successful dancers, I was self-driven and didn’t let myself fall into the black hole of “doing the minimum”. I knew that if I wanted to keep up my professional standards in dance I would have to get my butt off campus and train in the city. Part of the reason I chose UC Berkeley was its proximity to SF, where I knew there would be many opportunities to train and hopefully perform.
I was right. While getting my degree, I was able to train rigorously in SF with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, perform with various dance companies, choreograph and present my own works, and even get a full time position with Peninsula Ballet Theater. Yes: If anyone tells you it’s not possible to do both, tell them they are just dead wrong.
Because I was driven in both academics and dance and continued to grow in both areas, by the time my college graduation came around I had more choices than before and was in a better state of mind (and life), to make a decision.
I realized that while I love forensics, I wake up some days and think “eh, I really don’t need to be doing this…” But with dance, even on my worst days, I wake up every single day needing to dance. At the end of the day, that is why I decided to join a company after graduation.
I pursued this dream with peace of mind, though, as I knew I always had the option of going back to graduate school and working in a lab, where I would still be very happy.
I honestly believe that had I joined a dance company right out of high school, one, I wouldn’t have been as successful (as my overall maturity just wasn’t where it needed to be for a professional touring life), and two, I would have felt unfulfilled as an entire human being. I would have neglected a part of me that still needed exploring.
Now, I am loving life and living out my dream as a professional dancer and have no regrets on my pathway. I developed all sides of myself and am set up for the next many, many years regardless of where life takes me. No door has closed and I can still change my career path at any point. That is a beautiful freedom that I wish for everybody.
Of course, everyone is going to have a different story and pathway, and my decisions may be the opposite of what other dancer-scholars find successful. That’s okay! I present this today not in hopes that you follow my footsteps, but that you realize your options are limitless and one decision does not negate the possibility of a different decision in your future. Doors do not close like you think and YES, you have so much time. You are not even close to running out of time.
Enjoy your last year of high school and be thankful that you have the opportunity to make choices! Go full force into your future and be unafraid to make sharp direction changes at any point. You are never wrong in what you decide to do, as long as you are doing it for yourself and are giving it everything you’ve got.
Congratulations on reaching this point in your life, and cheers to whatever your future may hold.
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