Flexible, responsive, strong, creative, collaborative, and ever-growing are all characteristics easily attributed to dancers. They are also characteristics that could be used to describe the LEAP Program, a one-of-a-kind Bachelor’s completion program for dancers through Saint Mary’s College of California. As a college degree designed for dancers, by dancers, these shared characteristics aren’t surprising. What is surprising, perhaps, is that LEAP doesn’t offer any dance classes. Instead, the program tailors its liberal arts curriculum to the needs of current or retired professional dancers.
It’s no doubt that the past year has been huge for online learning and educational innovation, but LEAP (Liberal Educations for Arts Professionals) has been adapting the way liberal arts education is offered since its inception in 1999 - specifically with the working dancer in mind. Founded by Claire Sheridan, a dancer turned academic who served as Chair of the Saint Mary’s Dance Department from 1977 - 1997, LEAP has continuously grown, starting out as a small cohort of San Francisco based dancers who met on the Saint Mary’s Campus, evolving to hybrid programs blending in-person and online learning out of New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, to recently launching an entirely new online option*. Most notably, LEAP offers an opportunity for students to earn college credit for their already earned knowledge as a working artist, significantly expediting their time to graduation.
"A strong work ethic, attention to detail, a desire to achieve and improve, the ability to adapt to new and challenging situations--all the skills I took for granted were beneficial to me both in school and now in my new career" - Lauren Breen
Now, before I say anything further, it’s important to expose some of my very real biases in this matter: I am one of the Program Coordinators for the LEAP Program and I have a college degree in dance. However, even with my BFA, it wasn’t until I started working for LEAP that I truly understood what a Bachelor’s Degree was (let alone a college unit) and the interplay between what we learn in our personal and professional lives, to what we learn in the classroom. So while I’m a firm believer that college is not right for everyone, I also believe there are some important lessons the LEAP Program can offer, whether you’re in the midst of a college search, or among the many dancers whose training and careers have been interrupted by COVID-19.
To highlight some of these lessons, I spoke with current LEAP student KeKe Morris (credits include performances and choreography for KC and the Sunshine Band), LEAP alumnae Lauren Breen (former dancer with Sacramento Ballet) and Margot de La Barre (seasoned Broadway dancer and current New York Program Coordinator for LEAP), to get their takes on college, transferable knowledge, and career development.
How has your academic experience informed your artistry and/or relationship to dance?
KeKe: My academic experience has amplified my pursuit of excellence. I am more intentional about impactful artistry and the execution thereof. Several LEAP assignments that involved self-assessment have deepened my relationship with dance, allowing me to examine the whys and hows of movement creation, music selection, and the direct internal activities/responses overall.
Lauren: Prior to starting school, I certainly had those evenings where I couldn't stop overthinking a disappointing rehearsal or worrying about an upcoming one. But once I was in school I had homework to do, so I had to turn off my dancer brain for a few hours and focus on academics. I think that really helped me put things in perspective, and allowed me to let go of those little things and come back into the studio fresh and ready to work.
Margot: My experiences as a student in a liberal arts curriculum really shaped me in all facets of my life. It made me a more well-rounded individual and more in tune with the world around me. It's definitely broadened the scope of my artistic inspiration and given me new avenues to explore with my art-making.
One of the cornerstones of a Saint Mary’s College education is the development of lifelong learners. LEAP instructors understand that as dancers, their students embody what it means to be lifelong learners and anchor their coursework and assignments in critical thought and engagement, whether they are teaching math, writing, or anthropology. There is even a course called Personal and Professional Assessment in which students learn how their lived experiences have equipped them with lifelong practical (and accredited) knowledge.
What most surprised you about your college experience?
KeKe: I am most surprised by how much I’m enjoying the process. I think by enrolling in school after experiencing the world as a touring dancer/choreographer for some time, I can appreciate institutional learning in a way that I never have before. I’m thrilled about how everything seems to be clicking and aligning. Pretty exciting!
Lauren: One of the best things that [my education] showed me is how valuable the skills we use in the studio everyday are outside of dance. A strong work ethic, attention to detail, a desire to achieve and improve, the ability to adapt to new and challenging situations--all the skills I took for granted were beneficial to me both in school and now in my new career. Dancers don't give themselves enough credit!
Margot: I was surprised about how much of a bond I felt with the other dancers in my program. They were all hard-working dancers like me, and I felt such a strong kinship with each and every one of them. We were all people who had concentrated most of our lives on one specific discipline -- given our all to it -- and it made us a strong community of committed people who were ready to explore other interests and broaden our horizons.
"By enrolling in school after experiencing the world as a touring dancer/choreographer for some time, I can appreciate institutional learning in a way that I never have before" - KeKe Morris
What new interests have you been introduced to and/or pursued since starting college?
KeKe: I have been reintroduced to my passion for human psychology. I always found the way people think and operate fascinating, but interesting research and findings throughout my LEAP courses peaked my interest and curiosity like never before.
Lauren: Shortly after I started the LEAP Program some dancer friends and I decided to start our own summer dance company called Capital Dance Project. I already had the idea in my head that I might be interested in a career in fundraising for a nonprofit, and this was my opportunity to try it out while still dancing. When I spoke with my advisor about the project she put me in touch with a professor who created two independent study classes that would use my work at Capital Dance Project to teach me about fundraising and grant writing. [...] Within a couple months of retiring I was hired by the Sacramento SPCA where I work as the Donor Relations Coordinator, fundraising and writing grants.
Margot: While in school I revived a long-standing love of creative writing. I hadn't written anything in over a decade when I started back to school, but I found myself excited to work on writing projects. I even considered attending graduate school for Creative Writing when I graduated. [Margot is currently pursuing her Master’s in Dance at Montclair State University.]
In addition to these lessons learned within the educational experience, I was curious - what sparks a dancer’s college search in the first place? So, I reached out to J. Anderson who, at the time this was being written, had been accepted into LEAP but had not yet started classes. J’s performance career includes a variety of theatrical engagements, including performances at The Tony Awards, however he had long retired from the stage before reapplying for college.
Why college and why now?
J.A: Since transitioning out of performing, I’ve been fortunate enough to work steadily in theatrical casting and experiential marketing with neither field requiring higher education given my performance experience. However, I have recently decided that I would like to work in government and public policy, fields that require advanced degrees. So here I am, at last, finishing my Performing Arts degree at LEAP with hopes of going to graduate school in the fall of 2022.
And for the others…?
KeKe: I just knew it was time. I had been putting school off for a while, but I knew I wanted to fulfill this goal I had embarked on years earlier [...] So, to now be a student within this initiative feels “right.”
Lauren: I always knew I wanted to go to college at some point, I just didn't know how, or even if, I was going to be able to do it while dancing full-time [...] Once I realized that it was possible to dance and go to school at the same time, I filled out my application immediately!
Margot: At that point I had been working as a dancer in the theatre industry for fifteen years and I was in my mid-thirties. I had my first child, jumped right back into a Broadway schedule, and realized I was ready to start looking towards a new chapter -- the hours were hard on me and my child, and my body was starting to feel like it was time to ease out of dancing eight shows per week.
"As dancers, we have intangible skills that others simply have not spent years honing in the way that we have." - J. Anderson
Clearly there are varied reasons a dancer would pursue a college education. Any advice for those considering this as a next step?
Margot: My advice would be not to wait, honestly. I went through many years of my dancing career before starting on this path, and I wish I would have started my schooling much earlier -- before I had children, a house, and other responsibilities that made my time far more precious.
J.A: Don’t let a lack of formal experience or education deter you from anything! As dancers, we have intangible skills that others simply have not spent years honing in the way that we have. We understand the lifelong pursuit of betterment; stronger technique, more articulate expression. We understand dedication and tenacity. We understand how to take someone else’s vision and bring it to life. We understand how to take criticism. Once you start to head in a new direction, I guarantee you will find that all of the things you learned in dance class will set you distinctly apart from your co-workers and classmates. You may not be dancing...but you will always be a dancer.
LEAP is more than a college program - it’s a network of artists, scholars, and supporters with the understanding that a life in dance is worthy of practical and intellectual accolades. Whether or not college is the right path for you, the transferable skills and life experiences earned in the studio and beyond are nothing short of exceptional. I’m not the first person to say it - but dancer’s truly can do anything.
*online learning options available in select locations, please visit St Mary's College of California website to learn more or get connected with a representative.