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For freshman College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) dance student Courtney Connor, a typical day’s schedule begins with class at 8 a.m., followed by rehearsal from 9:30-6:15 p.m. with the Cincinnati Ballet, and concluding with night class back at the University of Cincinnati from 6:30-9 p.m. Connor is one of five current CCM students who are dancing professionally full-time while also pursuing their undergraduate degrees, and several CCM alumni have done the same before.
Connor came to Cincinnati in 2006 to join the Cincinnati Ballet and is now a corps company member. This year, she decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree knowing that CCM would allow her the flexibility to do both. CCM’s Dance Division is one of the few dance programs in the country in which students can work professionally while going to school, and the faculty recognizes the importance of doing both and supports these students’ efforts.
“Dancers mainly dance when they are younger, so having a degree gives them additional skills that can help prepare them for their careers after they are done dancing,” said Jiang Qi, CCM associate professor of dance. “We allow students to take the opportunities to dance with professional companies.”
Another reason faculty support professional dancers’ pursuit of higher education is the risk of injuries that can affect dancers’ careers.
“In case of injuries that end their careers early, or they decided to change careers, having degrees behind them can help them down the road,” said CCM assistant professor of dance Deirdre Carberry about dancers.
CCM graduate (2008) Kelly Yankle knows the impact of injuries all too well. After having surgery on her ankles, Yankle decided to go to school rather than work professionally, allowing her more time to recover before taking on the demands of a full-time dancing job. After two years at CCM, Yankle felt fully prepared to audition for the Cincinnati Ballet and was accepted into the company in 2006.
At that time, no other CCM dance students were going to school and working full-time. Not wanting to quit school, Yankle approached her professors about continuing her studies while working – paving the way for other students to follow suit. Together, the CCM faculty and Yankle worked out a plan that allowed her professional rehearsals to fulfill required university dance credits since she was dancing eight hours a day.
“Staff from the Ballet would send in videos and written reports so that my professors knew that I was doing the work,” said Yankle. “The professors often came to the Ballet performances as well, as another way to see my work.”
Technology has made this process easier for students to manage, whether it’s taking online classes or keeping in touch with professors through email to ensure that they are meeting deadlines. And for a field that is visual in nature, YouTube has made it convenient for sharing students’ work. This is especially true for students who are dancing with companies outside of the Cincinnati area, including the three current CCM students with the Louisville Ballet and one with Alabama Ballet.
But even with the benefits of technology, these students still face the challenges of scheduling their work and school commitments, including dance productions. Recent 2010 CCM graduate James Cunningham, who joined the Cincinnati Ballet in 2008 when he was a junior, remembers the busy schedules leading up to CCM performances. “Sometimes I had to come back to CCM after night class to rehearse or mend a costume; I really had to be on top of things and manage my time,” he said.
Most students/professional dancers are able to perform in CCM’s spring dance production in late May, because professional dance companies typically end their seasons by then. This year, two of the professional dancers/CCM students – Connor and Emma McGirr, one of the Louisville Ballet dancers – will play the lead role in CCM’s spring production of Giselle, which runs May 27-29. Connor and McGirr will join two other senior CCM dance majors in performing the role of Giselle.
Benefits of the program
One of the benefits of having professional dancers in the CCM program is the experience and knowledge that can be shared among students.
“Watching is part of learning in dance, so being in class with more mature dancers is an important part of that learning for any dancer,” said Michael Tevlin, CCM associate professor of dance.
Although only a small number of students in the CCM program work professionally at the same time, other students have opportunities to work as supplementary dancers for regional dance companies, particularly for larger works. Over the past winter holiday, several students danced with the Dayton Ballet – rehearsing over the weekends – on its production of The Nutcracker.
“When students go out and work with new choreographers and then come back to CCM, they reinforce the view that what we do here is of a high standard,” said Tevlin.
Typically, the CCM students who have pursued full-time dancing positions have completed a few years of school. According to Tevlin, part of this can be attributed to a change among the dance industry in which artistic directors are looking to work with more experienced dancers rather than hiring them straight out of high school – as was common during his dancing career.
“More dancers are going to college because the programs are better, and more artistic directors or professional companies are realizing the training dancers are getting makes them better, more mature artists,” said Tevlin.
So while Connor brings her experience to the classroom, having worked professionally for more than four years, she too is learning from other students as she adjusts to new classes and the university setting. Despite all the challenges in managing a busy schedule, Connor said that her psychology class has been one of the hardest aspects so far of going back to school.
“I was more nervous going into my first psychology test class than getting on stage,” said Connor.