Living the Dream

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

Music
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.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

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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