A couple of weeks ago I started my last course in the LEAP program at St. Mary’s College. For those of you who haven’t heard about it, LEAP is an amazing and unique program that was started in 1999 with the goal that professional dancers would be able to work towards, and in many cases earn, their degrees while maintaining a full-time work schedule.
Before LEAP was created, dancers had no options for earning a degree while still dancing. Our schedules are simply too intense to be enrolled in any other type of school program (even night classes are impossible because we perform most evenings). Without a college degree, some of the only options included becoming a ballet teacher, a ballet master, or a choreographer. For those who wanted to venture outside the dance world for their second careers, going to college for at least four years to earn a degree before starting a new career was not financially, an easy thing to do. The LEAP program has opened so many doors for dancers and I feel so fortunate to be able to take part in it.
The way the program works is that we go to school on Sunday evenings from 6-10 pm. We take a core curriculum of ten classes, which can take around three years to complete if done one after another. In addition to the credits from those classes, we are given credits for having “placed out” of any dance class that a college could offer. We are also given the opportunity to write papers to earn credits for our life experiences. For example, I wrote a paper called “Injury Care and Prevention.” The teacher at St. Mary’s college who teaches that class, read my paper, decided I had learned (through my job) everything he would have wanted his students to know, and I was awarded three units of college credit. The last 30 units or so that are needed to get a college degree are earned by taking courses on your own, either online, at night, or after you are done with your ballet career.
That being said, what I would really like to discuss is not the logistics of the program, but the ways in which it enriches our lives as dancers. Being in school allows me to have balance in my life. It is so nice to be able to completely switch gears in my mind when I have a break between rehearsals. I love being able to go from a hard rehearsal of Swan Lake, to reading the biography of Malcolm X, and then going back into rehearsals or preparing for a show. It not only keeps me sane, by focusing on something other than ballet, but it makes me a better dancer. My mind is refreshed because it has been stimulated and challenged, and I am able to walk back into the studio with a renewed energy. Also, LEAP provides me with the amazing opportunity to sit in a classroom with other dancers, ages 18 to 60, from all over the world. Picture how interesting a class on multi-culturalism could be when you have such a wonderfully diverse group of students.
Remember also how different the dynamic in the classroom would be when every person there has chosen to go back to school while working full time. It’s a great opportunity for the dance community in the Bay Area to come together. I’ve been fortunate enough to form relationships with other local professional dancers, former dancers, and teachers. It’s also quite unique in that it breaks down the barriers that are often established within the ranks of SFB. I have loved getting to work so closely with some of the principal dancers of SFB that I have, in many instances, grown-up watching and admiring on the stage. Now I find myself working on group projects with them or helping them edit an essay!
I also gathered some interesting information about the LEAP program that I think is worth sharing…
- About 36% of the dancers currently at SFB are either students or graduates of the LEAP program.
- Approximately 340 students have participated in the program since it was started in 1999, and 150 are currently enrolled.
- The program has spread to New York and Los Angeles, and is in the works for other cities as well.
- Some of the careers and jobs that graduates have gone on to pursue include: doctors, nurse practitioners, lawyers, professors/teachers, chiropractors, directors, producers, managers, theater production, art history, music composition, and international relations.