Seattle University Students You’ve Never Seen on Campus

The ballet dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) typically start their day with technique class at 9:30 in the morning. They have more classes and rehearsals until 6:30 p.m. and, on the occasional day when the they don’t have performances or other company engagements, 15 dancers gather for a class taught by a Seattle University professor.

The class is a part of the PNB Educational Partnership, a program that partners the ballet company and Seattle U to help professional dancers get college degrees. The classes were originally meant to fulfill university core requirements so that dancers could have those credits finished for whenever they retire and decide to pursue a degree.

The work that is required to have a career in ballet involves full-time training from early adolescence. A dancer typically retires in their mid-thirties or earlier and may not have the educational requirements for a second career.

Professor Jen Schulz, a senior instructor in the English department and Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies department, has directed the program since 2008. When she first started working with the PNB, dancers were not talking about their post-retirement goals because discussing a life beyond ballet was considered taboo. Schulz said that attitude has changed and now dancers are more open to discuss their desires beyond dance.

The cohort of dancers finished many of the offered core classes, so the Seattle U decided to start offering major classes. Students at PNB have taken classes like photography, Spanish and geology in addition to the core classes initially offered by the program.

Second Stage, PNB’s career transition program, began developing this partnership in 2003. Since then, they have been working to make traditional education easier for PNB’s dancers. They have provided nearly $430,000 in grants to 135 dancers pursuing higher education.

“The Second Stage program is another way they look out for their PNB family,” Terrel Lefferts, a member of the board of Second Stage said. “I’m impressed that company members donate portions of their own salaries to the cause.”

Lefferts has a daughter who is a trainee at another company and, through her daughter, Lefferts has witnessed the complexities of getting a traditional education and starting a ballet career.

“I see how much effort and will it takes to stay on top of the material,” said Lefferts. “It’s so fantastic that the dancers have extra motivation in the way of financial and organizational support to encourage them to plan for and take action for the future.”

A degree program was designed at Seattle U with these dancer-scholars in mind. The Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts-Arts Leadership was developed by Professor Kevin Maifeld in 2015. Two dancers, Keyon Gaines and Amanda Clark, have graduated directly from this program since then. Clark went on to receive a graduate degree from Northeastern University.

“[The students] are usually more educated than I am for the job I do,” PNB director Peter Boal said. “They also feel a lot less of the anxiety that comes with retirement.”

Only one class can be offered per quarter because they have to be fit in between their demanding performance and training schedules, so a degree can take nearly 15 years to complete.

“They have very, very high expectations for themselves and their instructors,” Schulz said.

She tells instructors to be prepared to give out syllabi well ahead of the first class. The dancers want to know the schedules, the readings and the assignments early so they can get ahead in the class, too.

Schulz tells the faculty she selects to teach the dancers to go watch them in a show before the quarter begins so these instructors can see the dancers interpret literary work through their bodies. The faculty can take this new perspective to the class and adjust their approach. For example, one instructor taught close reading by having dancers “close read” a YouTube video of a performance.

Last week, the dancers took their classes online. Their roles in “Emergence,” a triple bill about hive mindsets, relationships and sexual violence, took precedence over in-person class meetings. It’s this flexibility that is allowing these dancers to pursue their present passion while imagining opportunities for their future.

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