In This St. Mary's College Program, Pro and Retired Dancers Can Literally LEAP Toward A Degree

by Michael Mahany | 1/15/2019 3:32 PM

Graduates from LEAP's 2016 Class. Photo Credit: LEAP/St. Mary's College

For many dancers, jumping out of the gate early is the key to catching a majority of their professional career in their prime dancing years, but when they find they’d like to expand or ultimately to transition to something else entirely, they run into the issue of a lack of formal higher education. Often, high-level companies ask dancers still of high school age to move away from home and commit solely to their crafts, and many of these young performers don't get a chance to go through an undergraduate college degree program. 

Fortunately though, St. Mary’s College of California has created an educational solution called the LEAP Program aimed at both professional and retired dancers looking to earn a Bachelor’s Degree without ever having to put their career on hold.

“LEAP stands for Liberal Education for Arts Professionals,” Andrew Pearson, the Los Angeles Program Coordinator for LEAP told Dance Network. “The program began 20 years ago in San Francisco, with a recognition that many dancers were feeling ill-equipped for transitioning out of or expanding upon their performance careers.” 

“Going to a full-time four-year college is not always the best choice for a young dancer in their prime, but this program allows dancers to have a full, fulfilling performance career and still become a college graduate,” Pearson said.

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Through LEAP’s unique program, dancers who’ve worked professionally can actually translate their life experience into college credits.

“At LEAP, we recognize that personal and professional experience is just as valid as a college accredited class,” Pearson said. “We make it possible to earn a degree with half of the required course load that a full-time ‘on-campus’ student would take by translating professional experience into college credit.  For example, if a student is in a professional ballet company, we will add a class in Ballet Technique to their transcript for free.”

To be eligible to apply, a dancer must have worked as a paid professional for at least two years and live in one of the now four satellite cities out of which the program conducts classes.

“LEAP has always functioned as an extension program through St. Mary’s College of California and now operates out of San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas,” Pearson explained.

San Francisco Ballet company member and LEAP graduate, Damian Smith. Photo Credit: Erik Tomasson

The coordinators at LEAP understand that the prospect of returning to school can be intimidating, but because many of administrators are current or former professional dancers themselves, the program appears to have a sort of empathetic design.

"We understand going back to school is a big decision and can feel quite daunting,” Pearson said. “The program is designed to augment our students' learning, experience, and skill sets through our core curriculum, which includes seminar classes, writing classes, and a math and science class, all catered toward the adult and professional learner. Should a student come to us having already taken an equivalent class at a different college, we can substitute the class for an elective of their choosing.”

“All Performing Arts classes,” Pearson added, “will either be ‘tested out of’ or awarded based purely on documentation of their experience.”

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Dancers who enroll in the program can count on being viewed as an individual and receiving as much help getting classes customized for their respective path as they might need.  

“Class sizes are small and focused, and course of studies are personalized to each student,” Pearson said. “Each city has an academic advisor who will work individually with each student to design their course of study. We help make sure each student’s goals are on track and do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to scheduling and enrollment. We want each student to be focused on their learning, rather than the clerical work.”

Jordan Hammond-Tilton, former San Francisco Ballet company member, studying backstage. Photo Credit: Megan Amanda Elrich

“The program is designed to be completed in three to four years of part-time study, though this fluctuates from student to student depending on their personal schedules and how many transferable units they have,” Pearson said.

As for the future of LEAP, Pearson explained that he and the other program coordinators would like to not only widen the net of cities through which dancers might participate but also, to open up the program’s opportunities to practitioners of other disciplines.

“We’d love to expand the program to include other types of professional artists,” Pearson said. “So it would be great if we could include actors, musicians, painters — any professional artist interested in an undergrad degree without leaving their work behind.”

For more on LEAP’s programming and application process, as well information on administrators like Broadway dancer and New York Program Coordinator Margot de La Barre, San Francisco Bay Area dance artists and directors of LEAP Stephanie Miller and Shaunna Vella, or former LA Contemporary Dance Company member and Los Angeles Coordinator Andrew Pearson, visit their website here.

Information for prospective students regarding financial aid and access to grants or scholarships can all be found through LEAP’s tuition page.

Also, be sure to follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

Michael Mahany serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. He is also a professional actor, musician, dancer, and writer. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or click here to find out more.