Collegiate Career

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

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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