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Leading the Way in Hybrid Learning: LEAP Celebrates 20 Years

LEAP alumna Yuan Yuan Tan of San Francisco Ballet. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of LEAP

In recent months, hundreds of college dance departments have grappled with online learning and livestreaming. But the LEAP Program (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals) through Saint Mary's College of California has been using this style of learning for nearly a decade.


The program offers a BA in performing arts for professional artists. This means dancers from ballet companies, Broadway shows and the entertainment industry have the ability to earn a degree over the course of a few years. "This program is based on respecting the adult learner who is coming into the program with lived experience," says director Shaunna Vella.

Though Saint Mary's College is located in Moraga, California, there are three program hubs in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, where classes are held online and in hotel conference rooms at hours convenient to a working dancer's schedule. Students participate in both performing arts and liberal arts courses, including a variety of topics, such as anthropology and human biology. One of the most important program components is the personal and professional assessment course, which is a reflective deep dive into a student's prior experience, both professionally and personally. Dancers can earn credit for their artistic endeavors.

The capstone project offers much freedom for students to craft meaningful final projects, ranging from personal essays to podcasts to business plans. After LEAP, many students continue on as dance educators, arts administrators and performers. Some discover new passions and careers based on their educational experience, like law or business.

Stephanie Wolf (BA, 2014) now works in public radio and co-founded DIY Dancer, a website that features dance writing. "My initial goal was to simply finish my degree. I thought I might go into arts administration after my dance career. But LEAP helped me realize my dreams of writing and led me on a path to journalism. I am still in contact with a few of my LEAP professors. They were immensely supportive of my writing and ambitions."

The two vibrant directors, Vella and associate director Stephanie Miller, are dancers themselves and work closely with each student throughout their years of study. "I see how LEAP buoys the students in every aspect of their lives, and this is really special," says Miller. Vella adds, "Dancers are often undervalued in our society, but I want to show them how much we do care for them and their work. It is an honor and privilege to work with professional dancers to support their personal goals."

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Photo by Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy Faulkner

It's a Wednesday in May, and 14 Stanford University advanced modern ­dance students are logged on to Zoom, each practicing a socially distanced duet with an imaginary person. "Think about the quality of their personality and the type of duet you might have," says their instructor Katie Faulkner, "but also their surface area and how you'd relate to them in space." Amid dorm rooms, living rooms, dining rooms and backyards, the dancers make do with cramped quarters and dodge furniture as they twist, curve, stretch and intertwine with their imaginary partners.

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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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