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."

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.

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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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