Leading a Double Life

Three graduates explain how double majoring shaped their careers.

Breanna Gribble supports her dance career in NYC with a job in her second major.

When deciding what to major in, Breanna Gribble was determined to hang on to both her passions: dance and geology. As a double major at Southern Methodist University, she just didn’t expect to be hanging on so literally: During the summers of her sophomore and junior years, Gribble performed in Quarryography, a site-specific work by Pilobolus’ Alison Chase—suspended from an excavator in a quarry in Maine while wearing a tutu. “I danced to a steel drum and collected rock samples,” says Gribble. “It was a wonderful fusion.”

While this level of synergy may be difficult to match, double majoring can be a great option for students equally interested in dance and another subject. It’s an intense experience—students should expect heavy course loads and summer semesters—and extracurriculars and social life can get squeezed out of the picture. But double majoring can help dancers find crossovers between the two fields, expand their potential career options and provide a financial safety net to a professional dance career.

Marissa Osato

University of California at Irvine, 2009

Degrees in dance and literary journalism

Former competition kid Marissa Osato only added a dance major to her literary journalism major so the UC Irvine dance department would let her participate in shows. During the year, she regularly enrolled in 20–22 hours each term—4–6 hours more than what most colleges consider full-time status. Plus, she took 8 credit hours during every summer session, balancing choreography classes with journalism seminars. “I tried to avoid spending the whole summer sitting at a desk,” she says.

This left her with no time for interests outside of dance or journalism, but she did choreograph a piece almost every quarter, mount a six-piece show for her thesis and land an internship at Los Angeles magazine after graduation. “I didn’t know which major was going to take off,” she says, “so I went 100 percent in both directions.”

Marissa Osato did double duty in dance and literary journalism.

Today, she relies on her journalism skills as the full-time co-director of Entity Contemporary Dance. Entity recently premiered its first full-length solo show, based on the controversial topic of assisted suicide and set in a courtoom. Osato wrote and choreographed courtroom testimony for dancers to convey through speech and movement.

Nasira Burkholder-Cooley

University of Arizona, 2010

Degrees in dance and nutritional science; minor in chemistry

Heading into college, Nasira Burkholder-Cooley couldn’t see anything but ballet in her future. Her parents persuaded her to pick up another major just in case. So she chose nutritional science. “I figured if I was going to spend my time learning something else, it might as well make me a better dancer,” she says. Despite her initial reluctance, she started placing at the top of her upper-division courses. “It was so exciting to see this other side of myself emerge,” she says.

Even so, her schedule was relentless—typically from 8 am to 7 pm with an hour break. “I always felt a little torn,” she says. “There were countless times when I couldn’t take an extra jazz class or be in my friends’ choreography projects.”

Because there was virtually no overlap in the two majors’ coursework, she enrolled in 20–30 credit hours every session. This meant that she spent a day every semester gathering faculty signatures confirming her good grades, so that she could petition the dean to approve her ambitious schedule. She took summer classes every year to knock out nutrition requirements (and took advantage of Ballet Tucson’s drop-in ballet classes at the university in the summer).

Burkholder-Cooley is currently enrolled in a public health doctoral program, but dance directly influences her work. “Studying ballet at U of A made me disciplined,” she says. “I never could have gotten through these academic programs without that focus.” When she graduates, she wants to focus her practice on dancers. “My dance degree,” she adds, “will give me that necessary credibility.”

Breanna Gribble

Southern Methodist University, 2008

Degrees in dance and geophysics; minor in math

As a high school student, Gribble felt pressure to select a major that would lead to a stable career. “I knew I had to keep my options open,” she says. “What if I got injured?” She decided to double major, a choice that relieved her parents. “Professional dance can be a really difficult lifestyle,” she says. “They were glad that I wanted to do something else, too.”

Following two paths as different as dance and geology meant Gribble was forced to use every available minute wisely. Her daily routine included classes in ballet, physics, jazz and earth materials. An hour dinner break was followed by rehearsals. Finally, she’d work in the lab from 10:30 to around midnight. The geophysics department was accommodating, allowing her to turn in papers a few days late during particularly busy periods. The dance department, while sympathetic to the fact that Gribble was often exhausted, offered less flexibility. “You can’t make up a ballet class later,” she says, “the way you can make up a paper.” Still, she graduated in four years.

After college, Gribble auditioned for companies. “I got a lot of job offers,” she says, “but the economic downturn meant they didn’t come with a salary.” Now, she’s the associate artistic director of Mari Meade Dance Collective in New York. She balances the position with her full-time job as a project manager and geologist at Louis Berger, an engineering consulting firm. “I’m immersed in the arts,” she says, “and then I’m looking at soil pourings and doing reports for the Environmental Protection Agency. I love this dual life.” DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and New York City–based freelance writer.

Photos from top: by Justin Lundquist, courtesy of Gribble; courtesy of Osato

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