Three dancers share how professional opportunities in college helped shape their careers.

Kelly Yankle applied her traineeship with
Cincinnati Ballet toward her degree.

Dance now, or go to college? Knowing how short a dance career can be, it’s the question on many dancers’ minds as they weigh their desire to start working as soon as possible against the valuable assets of a college education.

Many colleges, however, are making it easier for students to get a head start in their careers. Whether through partnership programs with professional companies or flexible, independent studies, students are finding ways to get a leg up professionally while working on their degrees. Here, three dancers share how their alma maters helped them pursue the real-world opportunities that kick-started their careers.

Kelly Yankle, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music

Sarasota Ballet coryphée Kelly Yankle had hoped to join a company after high school. But when an injury prevented her from auditioning, she decided to pursue a BFA in dance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. During her sophomore year, however, she auditioned for Cincinnati Ballet and was accepted into its trainee program. Luckily, she didn’t have to give up her studies.

CCM’s dance division allows its upper-level undergraduates to take on traineeships or apprenticeships with companies like Cincinnati Ballet, Ballet West, Louisville Ballet and BalletMet while simultaneously continuing their degree. Students generally aren’t permitted to do so until their junior or senior year so that they can finish academic requirements. CCM counts company work as an internship, which can fulfill credits in ballet, modern, pas de deux and performance; ballet masters generally submit evaluation letters and grade students on their work.

Yankle’s schedule was grueling. Typically, she would fit in academic classes before 9 am, then head to Cincinnati Ballet, where she’d be in company class and rehearsals until the evening—often rehearsing for school shows on her own during breaks. Afterward, she’d return to CCM for more classes. “It was a busy, busy time,” she says with a wry laugh. “To this day I’m still recovering.”

Dance Department chair Jiang Qi encourages students to carefully consider whether the experience will provide the same quality of training. “Here they might dance the lead in Giselle or Serenade, whereas in a company they would be in the background for a whole year,” he says. “Also, you might miss things like extra courses that could prepare you for later in your career—that extra anatomy class that might help you study physical therapy later.”

Still, for Yankle, the balancing act was worth the extra work. She was eventually promoted into the company, where she danced for the next five years. “I’m really grateful I [pursued my degree] the way I did. It shows you don’t have to choose.”

Nick Wagner, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Of course, not every campus location allows students to smoothly shuttle between professional jobs and academic classes. For Nick Wagner, a freelance dancer in New York City, the Mark Morris Dance Group’s annual residency at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offered a valuable networking experience.

U of I’s Mark Morris Shadow Program enables promising students to shadow company members while they’re in residence, allowing them to get a taste of life as an MMDG dancer. The program doesn’t offer credits for independent study, but it can be practical in other ways.

Wagner says that the experience—which included taking company class, watching rehearsals, attending performances for free and an invitation to MMDG’s summer intensive—not only gave him insight into the company’s way of working but also opened a door for him professionally. He applied to the program his sophomore year and attended the summer intensive in NYC on scholarship, staying in a company member’s apartment. Since the program entitles participating students to continue shadowing in subsequent years, he became a familiar face to the MMDG staff. In turn, he got to know the repertoire.

That familiarity came in handy a few years later, after Wagner graduated in 2009 and moved to NYC. In 2011, MMDG hired him as a supplemental dancer for its large-scale production of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Afterward, he danced as an apprentice with the company through 2013 and continues to perform with MMDG as a supplemental dancer, including a tour to Madrid this summer.

“Having the ability to network before I graduated was really valuable,” says Wagner. “I still had to work my butt off, but I was in the right place at the right time, and it gave me that opportunity. The company knew me, and sometimes the hardest part in dance is just getting noticed.”

Pace University student Natalie MacInnis on the set of “The X Factor”

Natalie MacInnis, Pace Unversity

Even short-term professional experiences can be invaluable for college dancers. That was the case for Natalie MacInnis, who graduated from Pace University’s commercial dance program in May. Late last year, she received a call from Galen Hooks, a choreographer she had worked with the previous summer, offering her a two-week contract as an assistant choreographer on “The X Factor.”

MacInnis’ case wasn’t so unusual for Pace’s commercial dance program, which prides itself on helping students build a professional network and giving them flexibility to go after jobs and build their resumés. She consulted with program director Rhonda Miller to see if there was a way for her to go to Los Angeles and still complete her coursework. Miller allowed MacInnis to take her finals early and excused her from the last few classes of the semester.

“I helped run rehearsals, teach choreography, clean and set some numbers,” says MacInnis. Working with Hooks, she also assistant-choreographed Paulina Rubio’s guest shot on the show, and worked with lighting, sound and costume designers on the creative production side.

The experience of working on a major television show gave her budding resumé a huge boost. “It’s great to be able to get our faces out there and still have [the university] guide us as we’re doing it,” says MacInnis. “I think it’s important for us to take what they’re teaching us in the classroom and immediately apply that outside in the world.” DT

Mary Ellen Hunt is a dancer-turned-teacher who also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photos (from top): by Peter Mueller, courtesy of Kelly Yankle; courtesy of Natalie MacInnis

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