In South Carolina, the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities thrives.

South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities dance students in concert

One might not expect to find a residential arts high school in South Carolina that’s backed 100 percent by the state government. While many states have been eliminating their governor’s school programs due to budget cuts, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities is celebrating its 13th anniversary as a year-round program.

Since the school opened its doors in Greenville in 1999, the dance department has become known for exceptional classical training. Former students include New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns and American Ballet Theatre corps members Joseph Phillips and Gray Davis. Other former students have gone on to join Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and Miami City Ballet.

The school stands out not only because of the quality of the training, but also because the state of South Carolina makes this training available to students of all backgrounds. “Because we’re state-funded, we can take talented people who could not afford serious dance training otherwise,” says dance department chair and artistic director Stanislav Issaev. “Everyone here is on full scholarship. If people really want to dance, we can train them.”

Building a School

The umbrella term “governor’s school” refers to any residential program for gifted high-schoolers funded by the state. As of 2012, governors’ schools for the arts exist in New York, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, California, West Virginia, Delaware, Missouri, North Dakota, Vermont and South Carolina; many other states offer similar programs for academic enrichment, though the focus, intensity and duration vary. But with the economic downturn, many are losing funding—arts and academic alike. Currently, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities is the only residential year-round governor’s school specializing in the arts.

Established in 1980, SCGSAH was originally a summer intensive housed at Furman University. In the mid-’90s, then-director Dr. Virginia Uldrick, a musician, teacher and arts activist, felt that her state could offer more to its student artists. She approached state lawmakers to discuss the expansion of the program into a residential high school.

“The state’s eventual answer was, ‘We’ll give you funding if you can raise half of the initial investment on your own,’” says Julie Allen, interim dean of SCGSAH. “So, the school was originally built as a public/private collaboration.” After Greenville was chosen to house the school, the county and city jointly donated 8.5 acres for the new campus. And in 1999, after years of research, meetings and unprecedented fundraising efforts on Uldrick’s part, a school was born.

Today, the dance program at SCGSAH is open to 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders, while students in the other disciplines—drama, creative writing, visual arts and music—can attend in 11th or 12th grades. The school’s maximum enrollment is 242 students, approximately 35 of whom are dancers, and all students live on campus. Although the school continues to raise money from private entities to provide scholarship support for food fees and summer programs, the yearly operating budget comes entirely from the South Carolina state legislature.

Crafting a Conservatory

Uldrick’s vision was to hire teachers who were masters in their fields. To lead the dance program, she selected Issaev, a Russian native who started his performing career with the Moscow State Ballet Theatre and moved to the United States to join Atlanta Ballet as a principal dancer in 1990. Issaev was on faculty at the University of South Carolina when Uldrick approached him about heading up the new program—an opportunity he jumped at.

To help build the program, Issaev turned to Robert Barnett, former director of Atlanta Ballet, for advice and mentorship. The program was modeled on Robert Lindgren’s University of North Carolina School of the Arts dance department. The ballet curriculum is Vaganova-based, though Issaev says that it’s “updated Vaganova—very modern, and faster than a traditional Russian ballet class.” Students are also exposed to George Balanchine’s style and works through guest teachers and choreographers like Barnett, who performed with New York City Ballet.

Students have academic classes in the morning and arts classes after lunch. During the week, it’s all about ballet: technique, pointe, pas de deux, men’s class, character class and rehearsals. Saturdays are devoted to modern—Horton technique and Cunningham—with classes and repertory 10:30–5. Dancers are divided into intermediate and advanced levels by ability, not grade.

Encouraging Excellence

SCGSAH’s residential high school is open to any high school student (through a rigorous audition and application process) who is a resident of South Carolina. Some students are invited to attend the high school after attending a five-week summer dance intensive, which is open to dancers from 7th to 12th grades and features the same curriculum, taught by the same faculty, as the year-round school, with the addition of guest artists.

“We’re looking for natural ability and talent—coordination, musicality, flexibility,” Issaev says. “Prior training is important, but so is effort and desire. If someone really wants to come to our school, you can see it.”

By nurturing dance talent while promoting academic study, SCGSAH aims to create well-rounded graduates who have an array of opportunities awaiting them. Says Allen, “We want them to be prepared for whatever the next step is: a dance company, a conservatory, a major university or a liberal arts college.”

Allen sees the school’s success as a credit not only to the faculty and administration, but also to the state. “South Carolina may not be known for the arts, or frankly for innovative education, but our legislators have chosen to give us the resources to do this,” she says. “Students who go on to be successful talk about their time here as being formative. That has to do with the arts, yes, but also about finding their place and voice in a community that allowed them to grow.” DT 

Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, NY.

Photo: Students from the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in performance, by Matthew Leckenbusch, courtesy of SCGSAH

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