VCU grad David Claypoole, aloft, now dances with Fort Wayne Ballet—which he credits to his professional experience with Richmond Ballet while in college.
Upon graduating from the Baltimore School for the Arts, dancer Courtney Celeste Spears was faced with a difficult decision: Should she head to college for a dance degree, or enroll in a pre-professional training program to get inside access to a company? Thanks to Fordham University’s partnership with The Ailey School in New York City, she managed to do both—and began apprenticing with Ailey II while still a junior. Dual-enrollment programs like this one can offer students the best of both worlds, but only if they know how to navigate them.
Finding the Right Fit
Melanie Person, who co-directs The Ailey School, encourages interested applicants to work backward in their decision-making. “What are you trying to accomplish? Obviously if you want a performing career, you want a program that is quite rigorous,” she says. “If you want to dance but don’t necessarily see yourself onstage, you might want a BA.”
While Spears chose Fordham, ballet dancer David Claypoole picked Virginia Commonwealth University because of its partnership with Richmond Ballet. “I had been going to its summer programs and was already entrenched in ballet,” he says, “but I knew I needed that little push to secure my ballet technique and give me access to a more contemporary side.”
He spent most of his first two years taking dance classes at Richmond Ballet and academic classes at VCU, even managing to squeeze in a business minor with course work in marketing and real estate. Upon graduating, he was offered a place with Richmond Ballet II.
While success stories such as these are common at both VCU and Fordham, “it’s important to get the details about the program,” says Judy Jacob, who directs the school at Richmond Ballet. “Are there opportunities for advancement? To perform? Is a trainee program going to help them audition, or is it going to restrict them?”
At Syracuse University in New York state, a majority of the university’s visual and performing arts majors elect to spend the final semester of their senior year in New York City, as part of the university’s Tepper Semester. “Syracuse is known for having an excellent musical theater program,” says program director Lisa Nicholas. “When we designed it, we wanted it to be a pre-professional, conservatory-style program.”
Ailey/Fordham student Courtney Celeste Spears (now with Ailey II) in Christian von Howard’s At This Time, In This Place
The Audition Process
Most dual-enrollment programs, like the Ailey/Fordham one, require separate applications for each participating institution, plus an audition, including a solo. At VCU, the auditions include both improvisation and an interview. Dance chair E. Gaynell Sherrod looks for risk takers—“students who are innovators,” she says—and dancers who have a point of view. “How do they see dance in the larger social cultural perspective?”
When VCU students audition for Richmond Ballet, however, physicality plays a more significant role. Jacob says, it’s all about “beautiful feet, lines, flexibility, technique and physique.”
Though an audition isn’t required for Syracuse BFA students to take part in the Tepper Semester, BA students from Syracuse and other well-established musical theater schools, such as Carnegie Mellon and The Boston Conservatory, are welcome to participate and need to audition. All students must provide letters of recommendation.
A Balancing Act
Of course, finding the right program and gaining admittance is only half the battle. Balancing the artistic and academic demands of a dual enrollment program requires careful planning. “I’d start with 8:30 ballet at Ailey to get it out of the way, then run back to Fordham for traditional academics, then back to Ailey for Horton, then back to Fordham,” says Spears.
Claypoole spent his mornings at VCU and his afternoons at Richmond Ballet, although he was always sure to participate in the university’s Friday afternoon workshops in order to work with visiting artists such as Camille A. Brown, Rennie Harris and Doug Varone.
After a placement class, Syracuse students begin their NYC semester with a week of exploratory classes at Broadway Dance Center. They then choose three classes that they’d like to continue taking, ranging from tap to musical theater, and earn three course credits in return. To supplement this training, students can receive a range of classes, including private voice lessons, classes in advanced performance technique, on- and off-camera coaching, tickets to more than two dozen performances (both on- and off-Broadway) and at least a dozen of what Nicholas terms “cultural field trips.” “We want them to learn not just the business,” she explains, “but what art is being done.”
Ten current members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are Ailey/Fordham BFA graduates; other graduates have gone on to dance with Ballet Hispanico, Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Cirque du Soleil. And while it can be difficult to take on a double major in these programs, students at Fordham have earned additional degrees in communications, African American Studies, political science and psychology.
At VCU, dual-enrollment students comprise only a small percentage of the university’s larger dance program, but they swell the ranks at Richmond Ballet. Graduates have completed summer intensives with Urban Bush Women, BalletX and Philadanco, and Claypoole recently signed a contract with Fort Wayne Ballet.
Many Tepper Semester students—who are provided with the option of fully furnished apartments in New York during their semester there—never leave the city, because the Tepper Semester’s fast-track exposure has helped them land a role on Broadway before they even graduate. “It’s a fabulous way to get to know people,” says Nicholas. DT
Kat Richter is a writer, dancer and professor of anthropology. She lives in Philadelphia where she is artistic director of the Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble.
Photo by Sarah Ferguson, courtesy of VCU; by Eduardo Patino, courtesy of Ailey/Fordham BFA program