In May, Stephen Mills will earn a BA from St. Edward’s University, a liberal arts college nestled in downtown Austin. That fact would be unremarkable, except that the 50-year-old Mills took his last college class more than three decades ago, and in the intervening years he pursued a successful dance career, ultimately becoming artistic director of Ballet Austin.
Mills never expected to be a college graduate, let alone enroll as a student while also leading a ballet company. But Ballet Austin is committed to education, and Mills finally had the time to pursue his degree thanks to an innovative program he helped create: a partnership with St. Edward’s that allows dancers at Ballet Austin and Houston Ballet to rack up college credits without cutting into studio time. The program gives working dancers a chance to earn a BA in the most convenient way possible: by building it around their hectic schedules and giving credit for their dance company experience.
Dancers have an incentive to earn a college degree. Often their careers are ending just as their nondancing peers begin climbing the rungs of the professional ladder—to say nothing of the specter of injury. But a dancer’s schedule is so complex that even continuing-education classes, which are typically offered in the evening, don’t provide a solution. And dancers can’t exactly beg off a performance the night before a paper is due.
With the goal of providing a smooth transition to a post-dance career, the St. Edward’s program offered its first classes to 19 Ballet Austin members in January 2008 and welcomed 12 students from Houston Ballet last fall. The university is a good fit for the ballet companies: A Ballet Austin board member is the school’s president, and New College, its undergraduate program for working adults, laid the groundwork for adaptive educational programming. So far, the partnership is paying off. The program received an award from the Association of Continuing Higher Education, partly for its commitment to underserved populations.
“I had no idea until I started working on this a few years back just how underserved dancers are when it comes to higher education,” says H. Ramsey Fowler, the dean of New College.
This is not the case at St. Edward’s. Company members take classes—such as Ethical Analysis or Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Romances—in accelerated seven-week packages, two per semester. A professor drives out to Ballet Austin every Monday night (the dancers’ day off) for class; at Houston Ballet, classes take place online.
The Dance and the Humanities degree, comprising 120 credit hours, takes up to three and a half years to complete, depending on how many college credits a dancer starts with. (Since the companies cover some overhead costs, students pay a discounted tuition rate of roughly $425 per credit hour.) Crucially, company members receive up to 36 credit hours for their commitment and experience as professional dancers. “All of the knowledge they’re bringing is important,” says Christine Stone Martin, company manager at Ballet Houston. “Just like your work history would help you with a career, this is their work history.”
Ballet Austin member and St. Edward’s student Paul Michael Bloodgood’s work history includes 12 years as a professional dancer. But Bloodgood, 30, is also a burgeoning filmmaker. He recently turned in a senior thesis on television censorship and is seriously considering applying to an MFA program in motion picture and television production, to be pursued while he is dancing—an ambitious goal he credits to his experience at St. Edward’s.
And Bloodgood’s colleagues? Their career plans range from entrepreneur to teacher to yoga instructor. Some intend to remain in the dance world, while others are looking to branch out. The question of whether the St. Edward’s program eases that passage is still far from settled: There has been only one graduate so far, former Ballet Austin company member Anthony Casati, who now runs a high-end home repair and remodeling company.
In the meantime, the college classes seem to have done more than broaden the company members’ career plans. Aria Alekzander, a 24-year-old Houston Ballet company member who started at St. Edward’s last fall, relishes seeing her fellow dancers catching a 20-minute study session on a lunch break or discussing the latest reading from an art history class. “Typically your day consists of analyzing yourself in a mirror and being told by instructors how to dance the way they want you to dance,” she says. Now, her brain is alive with activity.
This is exactly what Mills, who initially signed up for classes to set an example for his company members, wanted. He hoped to teach the dancers their value outside the studio, and give them an ability to communicate verbally what they might once have expressed through movement. As an artistic director, Mills already has his post-performance career plans worked out, of course. But even he learned something about himself from his St. Edward’s experience. “If you’re forced to read Plato,” he says, “it changes the way you think about things.” DT
Leigh Kamping-Carder is a New York–based journalist who writes about visual culture, the arts, legal issues and other topics.
Photo: Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin artistic director and soon-to-be St. Edward’s University graduate (by Anne Marie Bloodgood, courtesy of Ballet Austin)