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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."

Studio Owners
The Dance Concept staff in the midst of their costume pickup event. Photo courtesy of Dance Concept

Year-end recitals are an important milestone for dancers to demonstrate what they've learned throughout the year. Not to mention the revenue boost they bring—often 15 to 20 percent of a studio's yearly budget. But how do you hold a spring recital when you're not able to rehearse in person, much less gather en masse at a theater?

"I struggled with the decision for a month, but it hit me that a virtual recital was the one thing that would give our kids a sense of closure and happiness after a few months on Zoom," says Lisa Kaplan Barbash, owner of TDS Dance Company in Stoughton, MA. She's one of countless studio owners who faced the challenges of social distancing while needing to provide some sort of end-of-year performance experience that had already been paid for through tuition and costume fees.

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Ryan Smith Visuals, courtesy Whitworth

A New Hampshire resident since 2006, Amanda Whitworth is the director of dance at Plymouth State University and the co-founder of ARTICINE, a nonprofit that uses the performing and creative arts as a means to improve people's health. Whitworth is also the founder of Lead With Arts, a consulting service working in three priority areas: performance and production, arts and health, and creative placemaking. The NH State Council on the Arts recommended her to the governor for a two-year term, February 2020 to February 2022. She is the first dancer in New Hampshire to hold the title of artist laureate. We caught up with her to hear about her new role:

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Genevieve Weeks, founder of Tutu School. Courtesy of Tutu School

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