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By Emily Macel Theys
5 dancers who found their artist selves in college
Rachel Meyer of Ballet BC. Photo: Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC.
Think you have to choose between going to college or heading straight to auditions right out of high school? Think again. More than ever dancers are pursuing bachelor degrees without putting their careers on hold. And the focused time pays off. Dance Magazine talked to five dancers at the top of their game who opted for college degrees and performing careers.
Ballet BC’s Rachel Meyer decided to pursue her BFA in dance and in doing so widened her range as a dancer. “When I graduated high school I was training with St. Louis Ballet and thought that I might want to go into an apprenticeship. But I didn’t feel like I was quite ready,” she says. “I needed more training and experience.” Meyer was interested in joining a major ballet company after school, so she looked for a college that had a strong ballet department. University of Utah’s stellar faculty and classical focus drew Meyer to Salt Lake City.
In addition to a range of technique classes, Meyer took kinesiology and dance history classes, as well as anthropology, absurdist theater, literature, and early childhood education courses. “I met all kinds of people, not just dancers and artists. It helped me grow and to understand what I wanted in a career.”
After college, Meyer joined the contemporary company Dominic Walsh Dance Theater in Houston. In 2011, she moved north—far north—from Texas to the Vancouver-based company Ballet BC. (If her photo looks familiar, it’s because she is the poster girl for Jacob’s Pillow this summer—literally.)
Gary Jeter. Photo: Sharen Bradford, Courtesy Complexions.
Unlike Meyer, Gary W. Jeter II of Complexions Contemporary Ballet didn’t know what sort of dance he wanted to focus on when he entered college, so variety was a driving factor in his choice. “When I visited the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, there was a focus on modern and jazz, and a lot of other opportunities throughout the city.” Born and raised in Atlanta, the former competitive gymnast had only danced for a year and a half before he graduated high school, “so I felt like I needed that extra time to hone my craft.”
Taking a wide range of courses has been beneficial to his career. “The non-dance classes gave me a different outlook and different things to be inspired by, not just movement. My art and literature classes helped me to understand how art is an imitation of life and that it also works the other way around.”
A lyrical mover who packs a punch, Jeter also benefited from guest artists like Mia Michaels and the late Fernando Bujones. His training with Bujones was invaluable. And, he says, “the main reason that I became a ballet major was that I understood that most dance forms have a basis in ballet. I wanted to have the clearest foundation of my own personal technique.”
Leah Morrison, at right. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu, Courtesy TBDC.
Going to college was always the path that Leah Morrison, a willowy, Bessie award–winning member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, planned to take. “I didn’t even consider going straight into a dance career,” she says. “College was needed for me as a period of gestation and to develop myself as a dancer and get to know who I am as a creative artist.”
Morrison says SUNY Purchase gave her a strong technique, but “getting to work with Neil Greenberg was a game changer. He was teaching Klein technique and Body-Mind Centering. He gave me a whole different awareness to thinking about moving. That aspect was really important for me, particularly in going for the Trisha Brown movement style.”
She feels that Purchase prepared her well for the professional modern dance world. “Choreographers and dance companies aren’t just looking for those with technical ability; they’re looking for someone to contribute to their creative process. In college, you learn to improvise, experiment with making your own work, be engaged in other people’s processes, and be engaged in your own creative process.” At Trisha Brown, Morrison says, “we’re asked to give a lot of our own creativity and our own opinion in the process of making work.”
Sykes, center, in Motown. Photo: © Joan Marcus, Courtesy Motown.
Similarly for Ephraim Sykes, a wiry and chameleon-like dancer in the current Broadway hit Motown, he was interested in college as a way to expand his craft and his sense of place in the world. He was drawn to the Ailey/Fordham BFA program because “the company has a lot of dancers that I looked up to, black dancers like myself with technique and artistry. It gave me something to shoot towards.” He had the opportunity to take class with the lead Ailey dancers who inspired him, like Desmond Richardson and Matthew Rushing. During his junior year, when Sykes joined Ailey II, he had the chance to perform alongside some of them as well.
Sykes says he became a well-rounded dancer by learning “how to speak with the body and how to initiate every movement. That’s what makes you understand why you move, and how deep it goes.” The program has a strong modern focus on Horton and Graham techniques along with jazz, hip-hop, and ballet. While Sykes was not training specifically to be a Broadway performer, his time in the program laid the foundation for success: “I have the technique to do eight shows a week and do a range of choreography.”
Sykes affirms that going to college isn’t just for the physical training, but also for the “opportunity to extend the mind.” He studied philosophy and theology in addition to his dance courses. Those classes, he says, “gave me a great understanding of how the mind and spirit work and why we move the way we move.”
Ebony Williams. Photo: Eduardo Patino for Dance Spirit.
Ebony Williams, a fierce and captivating Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer, attended The Boston Conservatory. You wouldn’t guess that she ever had career doubts, with the confidence she exudes in her roles— whether it’s center stage in Cedar Lake or alongside of Beyoncé in her music video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” But she fought the notion of being a professional dancer for years. “I hadn’t danced for six years before I went to the conservatory,” she says. “As a kid, I would always say that I wanted to be an architect or anything other than dance. Maybe it was fear, but I didn’t think it was what I wanted to do or was supposed to do.” But upon recommendation from a dance teacher she met through the Boston Arts Academy during her time off, Williams decided to dive back into dance in the conservatory setting. “I was ready. I think I needed that break from dance to realize how much I missed it.”
Williams says she became a completely different dancer at TBC. “I was such a bunhead when I was younger, I did a little jazz and hip-hop with my girlfriends but was focused on ballet. There’s nothing like getting training from some of the best teachers in the world to open your eyes up.” Williams says of former Limón dancer Jennifer Scanlon: “She is one of the best teachers I ever had.” In her work with Cedar Lake she carries with her what she learned. “She taught me how to use my body in a holistic way, from my center, not just my limbs.”
Williams also cites the business side of the dance world that she learned at TBC: auditions, presentation, contracts.
And Williams, who has aspirations of teaching or directing a school someday, feels that having a solid higher education will help her to stay in the field longer. “It’s key for future endeavors that you may want to pursue when you’re not dancing anymore or if you’re injured. You can educate young people,” she says. “There’s nothing like having a degree.”
Emily Macel Theys is a contributing writer to Dance Magazine and is the communications and development director of Dance Exchange in Washington, DC.