New Direction, New Perspectives: LEAP continues its mission

By Debra Holtz

December 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Megan Low performed her last plié for the San Francisco Ballet in 2006 when she was a “middle-aged” dancer of 27, leaving behind a fulfilling career as a member of the corps that included dancing the title role in Mark Morris’ Sylvia.

Smitten by dance since she first walked into a ballet studio at age 3, Low spent her childhood intensively training with little time for anything else. She signed on as an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet at 18, despite being torn between her love of ballet and her family’s commitment to education.

“My grandparents gave up everything to come here from China,” says Low, a Bay Area native. “Becoming a professional dancer was hard for them to comprehend.”

Like many dancers, Low did not have time when she was younger to attend college while meeting the demands of rehearsing, performing and touring. She tried a few online courses and even enrolled in a college class, but found herself exhausted. She gave up on any hope of doing both until she discovered LEAP (Liberal Education for Dance Professionals), a Saint Mary’s College of California bachelor’s degree program in performing arts.

The program debuted in San Francisco in 1999 and expanded to Los Angeles in 2004, and to New York in 2007 in partnership with Manhattan College. Serving more than 250 dancers from all disciplines – including ballet, contemporary, ethnic, jazz, film and theater – LEAP is the only Bachelor of Arts program in the nation designed specifically for current and former dancers. Classes located in downtown San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York accommodate rigorous performance and touring schedules, and the program offers options to earn credit for prior learning and professional experience.

“I was pretty practical in knowing that dance wasn’t going to last forever,” says Low. “I wanted something that would propel me forward.”

Her experience in LEAP inspired Low to become a teacher. Following her retirement from ballet, Low obtained a master’s degree in education and taught eighth graders in Berkeley. But she soon found herself missing her connection to the dance world.

“The dancer inside of me was starting to fade faster than I wanted it to,” she says. So she found a bridge between the two worlds by recently becoming a core faculty member and academic advisor for incoming students for the San Francisco branch of LEAP.

Not all dancers make a conscious decision to leave the dance world while still in top form as Low did. Injury or age eventually end the performing careers of many dancers by their thirties, and they soon find that transitioning to a new profession without a degree is difficult.

Preparing dancers for life off the stage was the vision of LEAP founder Claire Sheridan, whose own dance career was cut short by injury. The program is now directed by Mark Baird, M.A., a LEAP graduate who danced for 18 years with the Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and in Europe.

“LEAP gives artists dignity and a future beyond their lives as professional dancers,” says Baird. “It empowers them through higher education, and gives them the tools and support they need to discover and explore new areas of passion.”

LEAP’s understanding of the artist’s journey and being in the company of other dancers has enabled Los Angeles student Josette Owens to flourish in the program. She says dancers find success in LEAP because they are hard workers and overachievers by nature.

“Other college programs ignore past experience,” says Owens, a protégée of Broadway choreographer Chet Walker who has performed with the Long Beach Ballet and Goodman Theatre in Chicago. “I felt so welcomed because everything I had done up to this point was validated.”

At 45, Owens says she fits right into her class of 15 students where the youngest is 23 and the oldest is 65. Like other dancers used to quietly taking directions, Owens says she has found her voice again in the seminar-style classes.

“It gives you a confidence no one can take away,” says Owens, who will be the first in her family with a college degree when she graduates in 2010. She plans to pursue a master’s degree, following in the footsteps of one-third of LEAP’s more than 55 graduates who have studied medicine, law, physical therapy, art history and education.

For dancers still performing, LEAP offers classes on nights when theaters are dark and enables them to complete their coursework in three to four years. Opening themselves up from such a singularly focused discipline to a broad liberal arts curriculum can be intellectually liberating for many dancers.

“LEAP students in the prime of their dance careers tell us that their studies inform their art,” Baird says. “When they’re reading Shakespeare or studying the works of other artists, it gives them a new perspective on their own.” Stephen Hanna, 28, left the New York City Ballet in July after 11 years and began rehearsing two days later for his first Broadway appearance in the musical Billy Elliott. He says he loves what he is doing and hopes to continue dancing as long as he can, but still finds time to attend LEAP classes on Sunday nights.

The last time Hanna was in a classroom was in 12th grade as a student at the Professional Children’s School in New York City, where his classmates included other young performers like actor Macaulay Culkin.

“I could have cared less,” Hanna said of the 45 minutes a day he spent studying back then. “I just wanted to get through it.”

Now, 10 years later, he says he is excited about learning. LEAP has enabled him to better use a computer and speak more confidently. Most of his classmates are dancers he knows from the NY City Ballet or Broadway, who he says would feel out of place in a traditional college alongside 18-year-olds.

“I just feel like there’s more out there for me, though I’m not sure what,” says Hanna. “I’m stepping out for the first time and seeing possibilities.”

This article appeared in the December 2008 issue of In Dance.

Debra Holtz is a published author and former writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently the media relations manager for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.