St. Edward's University lets professional dancers earn a college degree while continuing to perform.

Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin artistic director and soon-to-be St. Edward’s University graduate

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 by Anne Marie Bloodgood, courtesy of Ballet Austin


The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by The Fleet, courtesy of Lion's Jaw Festival

Growing up in New Jersey, Lisa Race trained with a memorable dance teacher: Fred Kelly, the younger brother of famous tapper Gene. "Fred would introduce our recitals," she says. "He would always cartwheel down the stairs." It wasn't until years later, when Race was pursuing her master's degree and chose to write a research paper on Kelly, that she realized there was a clear connection between her own movement style—improvisational and floor-based—and his. "In this television clip I watched, Fred jumps up to the piano, then jumps off it—he's going up and down and around," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, wow, all this time, I've thought of my dancing as my own, but that's where it started!' Moving upside-down and into the floor. There's a thread there. I rerouted it in different ways, but there's a connection."

Now, as a professor at Connecticut College, she concentrates on how to introduce her students to that love and freedom of upside-down work—and how to best prepare them for life after graduation, no matter what dance path they take.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

It's summertime, which means we're all starting to feel HOT! HOT! HOT!

While a warm room is certainly better than a cold room when it comes to dancing, you don't want your students to get heat stroke at your studio. To help you survive this sweaty time of year, here are tips and tricks that will keep your classrooms comfortable for an excellent class.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're not prepared, studio picture day can be a real headache. But, if done right, it can provide you with gorgeous photos that will make your students and parents happy, while simultaneously providing you with marketing content you will be able to use for years to come.

Here are five tips that will help you pull off the day without a hitch.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I have a very flexible spine and torso. My teachers tell me to use this flexibility during cambrés and port de bras, but when I do, I feel pain—mostly in my lower back. What should I change so I don't end up with back problems?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox