Theory & Practice: Ballet Conservatories Are Making Space for On-site, Online Academic Study

San Francisco Ballet School dancers choose their own academic study time.

A generation ago serious ballet students often agonized between pursuing a performing career and going to college. Now they’re facing that decision even earlier. Attending online high school has become common for teenage pre-professional students who spend upward of five hours a day dancing.

“It’s where the ballet world’s headed,” says Jenifer Ringer, director of the Colburn Dance Academy in Los Angeles. Ringer initially worked hard to schedule Colburn classes so dancers could attend an abbreviated day of regular high school classes. But when she realized nearly all her students had opted for online high school, she made the choice many school directors have made—to hold pre-professional dance classes during academic school hours.

The demands of pre-professional training and the rapid proliferation of online schools and improvements in both their rigor and reputation have coalesced to make alternative schooling more appealing to a wider range of students and their parents. Dance schools large and small have responded by creating academic environments within their schools to support students’ independent study. But how does it work? And how active a role should the dance school take?

For dancers, the primary appeal of alternative academic programs is flexible timing, both in their daily schedule and over the long term. “Most of the programs are flexible enough that if you don’t do your four hours of schoolwork Monday, you can make them up later in the week,” explains Christina Rutter of San Francisco Ballet School. Online programs vary widely, ranging from free cyber charter schools to rigorous programs created by elite universities, and from programs with little to no interaction with virtual teachers to those where students Skype with teachers several times a week.

Recognizing that students have differing academic goals and financial resources, most dance schools allow dancers and their parents to choose individually among programs. San Francisco Ballet School provides students and parents with a list of programs. “Our philosophy is that flexibility is the most important aspect,” says Rutter. “The families drive the academic goals for their children, so they ensure they have the right program for their students’ needs.” Though SFBS doesn’t administer any particular online program, it does provide support in the form of free Wi-Fi and a library. Students choose their own study time.

The Rock School schedules formal academic study periods.

Other schools formalize the academic schedule, setting times for students to be in the school’s classroom, with school administrators and occasionally tutors on hand to help. The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory, for instance, schedules academics in the morning and dance in the afternoon. At The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, students switch back and forth between academics and dance. Nutmeg also provides a large community room that offers offshoot rooms for small-group work and quiet spaces to record foreign-language practice.

Among dance schools that have elected to administer one primary online program for students, the Keystone School is popular. It’s run by the publicly traded, for-profit company K12 Inc.—the nation’s largest online education company. “There are two main things Keystone brings to the table,” says Robert Hodges, academics and student affairs director at The Rock School, which has been using Keystone since 2001, in addition to Commonwealth Connections Academy, a public cyber charter school for the state of Pennsylvania. Among the many considerations involved with selecting these programs (accreditation, tuition/fees, graduation requirements, teacher availability, range of support services, courses/electives offered, religious affiliation), Hodges considered what size course load would be optimal for dancers.

“At Keystone there are no deadlines per se, except students have 12 months to finish,” Hodges says. “And there’s a good balance between academic rigor and accessibility. The amount of work fits with the time dancers have.” Students have the option to register individually for Keystone, or the dance school can create an academic program that includes a certain number of Keystone classes.

While many schools rely almost entirely on online curricula, others such as the Joffrey Ballet School blend online programs with in-house teachers to mitigate some of the primary challenges of online schooling. 

“Definitely the hardest thing is to get the kids to take ownership of their education,” says Hodges. “To be very honest, it doesn’t work for everybody. While it can be a much more efficient way of getting a high school education, the lack of deadlines can be difficult for some students.” A recent study by Stanford University found that online charter school students working from home learn less on average than students in traditional schools, in large part because of lack of support. “That’s why we have tutoring and weekly updates, so students don’t fall through the cracks,” says Hodges. “And I, too, act as tutor, teacher, principal, guidance counselor and cheerleader.”

Beyond setting up classes and registering, Nutmeg’s academic program director Donna Mattiello helps students negotiate the realities of online schooling. “Especially coming from a brick-and-mortar school, it can be hard to understand that there’s a teacher out there looking at their work and caring about what they do,” she says. “Kids need help developing a relationship with their teacher.”

Online schooling also requires “a huge amount of discipline and self-motivation,” says Rutter. These are qualities pre-professional ballet dancers usually possess in abundance. But they are teenagers, often more excited about pas de deux class than trigonometry. “It’s difficult for anybody, let alone teenagers, to focus for four or five hours on academics,” says Mattiello. “A lot of my job is making sure they stay focused—not sneaking text messages—and take breaks.”

This emphasis on academic focus is essential, because, realistically, not all students will become professional dancers. For some, the path may lead to a college dance program. “I tell them they’re doing a college prep course whether they like it or not,” says Hodges. “We want them to be set up to be successful wherever they end up.” And there is evidence that online schooling can breed academic excellence: In recent years SFBS students have gone on to Stanford and Princeton.

In fact, the independent thinking cultivated in online school can provide a lifelong lesson. “Every negative of online schooling has a flip side that’s positive,” says Hodges. “One of our greatest joys is when a freshman who is struggling finds that moment when it clicks and then realizes she can take ownership of her learning. That idea alone can translate into a profitable dance career, and it’s something that they might not learn in a traditional high school.” DT

Caitlin Sims, a dance parent based in San Francisco, is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy San Francisco Ballet School; Cat Park, courtesy The Rock School for Dance Education

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