In addition to writing for various magazines and doing freelance photography over the past few months, I have been taking college courses in hopes of one day getting a degree. Collecting credits during the span of a professional career helps relieve the weight of two words that provoke more fear in dancers than falling into the orchestra pit: “career transition.” The funereal tone with which these words are uttered may as well send a chainsaw through the room removing dancers’ legs and packing them in a coffin.
Programs like LEAP (an unfortunate acronym for such a good program) aim to keep those legs on the ground while preparing dancers for the future. Of the 15 credits I’ve accumulated so far, only three have been through LEAP, but as I stepped back into the classroom last Sunday I initiated the beginning of a more serious immersion in my academic life.
Huddled in the back corner of an overly-air-conditioned Hyatt Hotel was a conference room that looked as if it had hosted its fair share of “Hairstylists of America” conventions. When I opened the double doors (ten minutes late), I found a collection of artists huddled around tables strewn with generic Tic-Tacs and sweaty pitchers of water. As I added myself to the contradictory scene, I watched as an older woman strolled into the center of the square of tables.
For a moment she looked like the quintessential teacher -- large pearls teasing the neckline of a knee-length green dress leading down to tan sneakers. Then she started speaking. Her hands violently shook through the air. Then they stretched out in a diagonal as she admitted her desire to be a musical comedienne. Finally, they grabbed a blue marker and documented the highs and lows of her life along a timeline on the whiteboard. In short: she threw herself onto the paper-thin carpet of that conference room. It was an unusual introduction for an unusual course, and one that made me anxious to flex my academic muscles.
As she paraded around the center of the square of tables, she punctuated sentences with scold-worthy stares into students' eyes that sent a shiver of anticipation through the classroom. Each word she uttered made it clear that the course was going to be a different experience than what was described on paper. It is the crown jewel in the LEAP curriculum: Professional and Personal Assessment, a chance for students to collect credits for knowledge they have acquired over the course of their professional careers by writing essays detailing their knowledge(up to 30 credits in total). But our teacher Kathleen’s passionate introduction revealed that the course will hold more weight than that description; it will become a chance to explore the depth of our existing knowledge, and analyze the process in which we learn.
For dancers, the ambiguity of a course like this is almost as much of a death sentence as the dreaded “career transition” itself. Whether in New York City Ballet, ABT, a Broadway show, or freelancing, all of the students in my LEAP class have one thing in common: the burden of craving rigid guidelines for almost every niche of our lives. Most of us have spent our existence adhering to an art form that counts out our steps, and tells us what square of the stage to stand in while executing them. So when Kathleen explained the first assignment with the simple sentence, “Reflect about the way you learned something this week,” I could feel a ripple of anxiety make its way through the room.
“The way we learned what?” we all wanted to know. To make it through eight performances? To squeeze an extra free ticket out of a Broadway producer? We begged her to tell us what, how, and why. And with a wry smile (revealing a more restrained side than her outlandish introduction), it was clear she wasn’t going to give us the satisfaction.
As we sauntered out of the door, looking out at Lower Manhattan’s skyline on our way back to the PATH train, my friend Jill and I talked over each other with excitement. The act of analyzing and reformatting one’s knowledge may at first seem like kicking a brick wall. But there’s something exciting about seeing if you can get the wall to move…even just a little bit. There’s always the possibility that something great is waiting on the other side.
In many ways the walls I spent my entire life building crumbled down over the past year. Peering through the cloud of dust, and stepping out from the perimeter of the debris has been difficult. This course seems like the perfect beginning to seeing if I can exist on the other side.