I have deep respect for dancers who balance their professional training/career with the pursuit of higher education. Whether this education is achieved through enrollment at a university or involvement in creative projects, I think pushing ones mind to expand beyond the studio can enrich artistry and open unforeseeable doors later in life. I asked Kirsten about her experience of getting a degree while dancing professionally. She was kind enough to share below.
"In room 218 of the Feinstein building at Providence College, I crossed and uncrossed my legs too many times, attempting to fit myself into the rubber desk chair in a way that would not anger my sore bunions. It was a chilly evening in June, and PHL 303: The Philosophy of Death and Dying was meeting for its first class of the semester. I’m not used to sitting still this long, I thought to myself, as I glanced up at the clock and realized only 4 minutes of the 3.5-hour class had passed. The professor’s voice drew me back from the minute hand, describing our greeting exercise with a bit too much enthusiasm. We were to go around the room, he instructed, each of us stating our name, our major and our reason for taking the course. The first 4 students offered a wide range of majors and similar sentiments on fear of death, curiosity about the afterlife, and necessary course requirements as their enrolling forces. When my turn came, I said something like this:
" 'My name is Kirsten. I’m a liberal arts/journalism major, and I am taking The Philosophy of Death and Dying because of Giselle, Odette and Aurora.'
"Heads turned. Silence ensued. Realizing the mistake in my vagueness, I continued…
" 'Oh, I’m a professional ballet dancer, and I’ve always found it interesting how many of history’s most celebrated ballets involve the death of a principal character. Whether that death be a deceived peasant’s dissent into madness and literal heartbreak, the love scorned suicide of a birdwoman, or a pseudo fatality in the form of everlasting sleep…the sheer strangeness of death’s prominence just fascinates me.'
"My closest friend in this class was 76 years old. She missed the following class to attend her granddaughter’s ballet recital.
"Pursuing a college degree alongside a ballet career has been challenging, to say the least. But the desire for difficulty seems to be an inherent trait in dancers, and education has always been an important part of my life. Do you know the 4-year-old girl who declares that she is going to be a ballerina when she grows up? I was not that girl. I always enjoyed academics, and assumed I would go to college full time following my high school graduation. Ballet was something I dedicated countless hours to every week, my pointe shoes felt like part of my feet and the studio a second home, but I always stayed up after rehearsal, finishing my homework for school the next morning. Ballet taught me discipline, determination, time management and a more comprehensible approach to basic algebra, but I never seriously considered it as a career path until my junior year of high school. When I began looking at colleges based on their dance programs and fostering terror at the thought of working somewhere surrounded by a crowd of anyone but professional ballet dancers, suddenly it became clear that ballet and I were irrefutably homogenous. I was hooked, undeniably, but still wanted to further my education.
"After splitting my time between a traineeship at the ballet and half days at school my senior year, the lifestyle of a professional dancer felt right, and studying in my off hours seemed a manageable feat. Enter a contract with my training school’s professional company, Festival Ballet Providence, and an acceptance letter from Providence College. I was in. Times 2.
"These days, I am often lugging textbooks to the studio with me, reading between rehearsals and contributing to online discussion forums while I stretch. I have learned much about sociology, psychology, literature, writing and people. I’ve penned many-a-paper “from the perspective of a ballet dancer”, and gained a better understanding of what that actually means in the process. I’ve improved the time management skills I assumed had peaked in high school and I’ve learned to accept when they fail (sometimes professors are sympathetic to Nutcracker season, sometimes they are not). I have learned that a change of scenery can work wonders on a tired brain, a room without mirrors can expand your imagination, and engaging in debates outside the Vaganova-or-Balanchine dispute can actually make you a better dancer. I have learned that strength of mind empowers the body and soul alike, and that a swan’s death speaks volumes of her life. This intellectual expansion cultivates a curiosity in the classroom as well as the studio, and feeding that craving for discovery is worth every “take five” spent with my toes in the air and my nose in a book."