Hayden Hopkins studying in the theater before transforming into Mystère's La Belle (courtesy Mystère 'by Cirque Du Soleil)

A full-time university isn't your only option for earning a degree. Enrolling in college part-time while pursuing a pro career is a challenge well worth the rewards.

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As a teen, Louisville Ballet dancer Lexa Daniels knew college was the right path for her. "I wanted to have a career in ballet," she says, "but I wanted to get a foundational education first." After considering several schools, Daniels realized that the University of Utah was the best fit. What tipped the scales in Utah's favor? "At that point in my life, I was looking for true classical ballet," she says, "and the other schools had a more contemporary approach. I also liked Utah's close ties with Ballet West. There's a lot of crossover between the company and the university."

Myriad factors go into choosing a college, from location and cost to campus amenities and potential double majors. But if your goal is to become a professional ballet dancer after graduation, you'll first need to determine which schools are equipped to guide you toward that dream. As you investigate your options, look for these key signs of a strong ballet program.

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A successful career takes more than great technique. Photo by Thinkstock

Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.

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Jackie Nash with Jacob Bush in Allegro Brillante. Photo by Kim Kenney, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Ballet schools are back in session and dancers are preparing to be back in class with all of its exhilaration, magic, and, of course, struggle.

Today, four dancers reveal what they found challenging as ballet students and how they now look at their technique as professionals.

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New York Theatre Ballet's Alexis Branagan studied English at Princeton. (photo by Richard Termine, courtesy New York Theatre Ballet)

College-bound dancers sometimes feel as though a dance degree is the only path to professional success. But while majoring in dance can be a great option, it's certainly not the only one. College should be a time of self-discovery, which often means exploring a variety of academic interests. We spoke with five artists who chose college majors completely outside the dance world—without sacrificing their postgrad careers.

Ephrat Asherie, Artistic Director of Ephrat Asherie Dance; BA in Italian from Barnard College

Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Asherie

Ephrat Asherie chose not to major in dance because she knew dance would be a part of her life regardless. Her love of languages, along with fond memories of her childhood in Italy, inspired her to major in Italian at Barnard College. "I wanted to reconnect with that part of my life," she says.

Since Barnard is in NYC, Asherie had plenty of dance class options. "I took some classes in the dance department, but I mainly trained in the city," she says. She also spent a year abroad in Italy studying literature and linguistics, which helped her speed through many of the requirements for her Italian major.

Seeing Rennie Harris' hip-hop opus Rome and Jewels after her sophomore year of college marked a turning point. "I grew up dancing hip hop, but when I saw this piece, I knew I had to get into breaking," she says. "In that moment, I decided I wanted to graduate early and get to dancing as soon as possible."

Asherie ended up earning her Italian degree in three and a half years, after which she began her career as a dancer and choreographer immersed in the breaking and underground dance community. As founder and artistic director of Ephrat Asherie Dance in NYC, Asherie has found that her knowledge of language helps deepen her understanding of various hip-hop styles. "I've always been drawn to finding ways to communicate with people," she says. "Learning someone else's language helps you connect with them on a different level. Different languages have different modalities, and I try to look at different forms of dance in a similar way. House dance, breaking, hip hop—they're all qualitatively different modes of human expression."

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