Professional dancer Ida Saki heads back to school this fall.

Saki, left, with fellow Cedar Lake dancer Jon Bond in Crystal Pite’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue

When title-winning comp kid Ida Saki chose college over a professional career, some cautioned her that she would lose valuable career momentum. But Saki knew she’d made the right decision. Then, after two years as a dance major at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet—her dream company—offered her a contract. Though she had to put her degree on hold, she became a member of Cedar Lake for three years, until the company folded this past summer. Now, Saki has again surprised those keeping tabs on her career: This fall, she returns to NYU to finish her degree.

When I was graduating from high school, a lot of people told me not to go to college—that I should audition for companies right away. But I’ve always been really into academics, and I enjoy being in a classroom environment. I didn’t know what I wanted. Then Pam Pietro, a modern teacher at NYU, came to my performing arts high school to hold college auditions, and I fell in love with her class. That was when I decided to attend NYU, a decision I’ve never regretted.

There’s a sense of mentorship that you get in college that you don’t necessarily get if you’re just taking class around the city. Teachers at studios in New York have their own lives and careers, and if you’re lucky, they become a mentor. But when you’re at a university, that’s the teachers’ job. They’re thinking about you at night, trying to help you grow. You get a personal connection with the teachers that’s difficult to get anywhere else. And there’s a steady curriculum, and you just get to know the people who you’re dancing with so well. The people I danced with here at NYU became some of my closest friends in the city.

From Comp Queen to College Kid

As someone who grew up going to competitions, I definitely felt a shift in college from my high school training, but I never felt that I was missing anything. Because I was living in the city, if I got into a funk and thought, “I just need to get into a hip-hop or lyrical class and let go,” I could go to Peridance or Steps on Broadway or Broadway Dance Center. Because I was in NYC, I was doing a lot of side gigs. That’s how I got my connection with Cedar Lake.

Cedar Lake was a unique company because they really wanted to see the individual. And that’s what they ask for at NYU—cultivating the individual and your own uniqueness. I wasn’t used to that in my training in high school. High school was stricter—I wanted to do everything just like the choreographer. Dancing at NYU was the first moment that I actually let go of that and got to experience things, rather than trying to be something else.

It was a very difficult decision to leave college. Cedar Lake had always been my dream company, but I only had one more year of school left. I got advice from a ton of people, including teachers from NYU. Although some rooted for school, most of them reminded me that I could always go back to NYU, and who knew when the next contract opening would be? I was ultimately happy with my decision, and I’m very lucky to have received the best of both worlds. After two years of college, I came to Cedar Lake with a more mature approach, rather than a hyperperfectionist ideal. Now, I feel like I’m a step ahead in my career because of those years.

Deciding to finish her NYU degree was a no-brainer for Saki (aloft).

Why She Went Back

When Cedar Lake closed down, there was the question of what everyone was going to do next. I’ve always been a bit of a nerd—I need to constantly be learning something. And when I left NYU, I knew I wanted to finish at some point, after all the time and money I put into the program. It was just a matter of time and scheduling. So when the opportunity presented itself, it wasn’t even a question. Of course!

There was that fear of, “Am I taking a step back by going back to school?” But I had already made the decision to go back one day, and the break was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I took that time to experience dance and figure out what I want in my career—I want to keep performing, and, ultimately, I’d like to teach at a university. Going back to school made me realize how much I enjoy the school environment. I’m coming into the year with a new approach and a completely different perspective—and more appreciation for my classes, teachers and the incredible environment they create. DT

Ashley Rivers is a Boston-based arts writer.

Photos by Sharen Bradford, courtesy of Saki

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