by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson; photos courtesy of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet
After years of hard work, Natalie Ferris ’18 didn’t want to give up her high-level ballet instruction. But she also wanted to explore other career options. “I was torn,” she says, “because I knew that in dance conservatory programs, I would focus more on ballet and would not have as much time for lab-based classes I knew I wanted to take. And at other liberal-arts schools, the dance curriculum was primarily modern and contemporary, with little to no rigorous preprofessional-level ballet training options.”
Dickinson’s ballet-certificate program offered a chance to have it all. And today, that program has grown even more distinctive, with a new name to match.
The new name is a mouthful—the Dickinson College Ballet Certificate Program With Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB)—but there’s a reason for that: It pays full homage to the longtime and deepening partnership between Dickinson and the neighboring internationally renowned preprofessional ballet school.
As with Dickinson’s previous CPYB-partnership program, students earning the new ballet certificate take four ballet classes at CPYB and four academic classes with Dickinson instructors (dance history, anatomy, choreography and world dance). The difference is that now, they’ll earn one Dickinson credit for every ballet class, making it easier to complete the certificate while pursuing degrees in any of the Dickinson’s 45 majors. The new program also includes a mandatory ballet performance, so that ballet students have more opportunities to appear on the concert stage. Students also may complete an internship in performance, nonprofit management, marketing or stage tech.
“The fact that we offer full-time ballet as an academic credit is very distinctive—it’s essentially a conservatory-style ballet program merged with a liberal-arts degree,” says Sarah Skaggs, director of dance. “I don’t believe that opportunity exists at any other college in the United States.”
So what does that distinctive education look like, and what can you do with it?
Leah Blatt ’22 is currently enrolled in the ballet program. She began dancing at age 2 and became serious about it at age 13, studying privately and performing and training at Le Jeune Dance Academy in Cincinnati. Her performance highlights include the Snow Queen and Arabian pas de deux in “The Nutcracker,” and the Paquita pas de deux as a high-schooler. Like Ferris, she says Dickinson’s ballet partnership with CPYB was the deciding factor that brought her to Carlisle.
During her first year on campus, Blatt maintained a full-time ballet schedule in CPYB’s preprofessional division, allowing her to dance about 27 hours each week; she also enjoyed her Dance History class, a writing-intensive course that focuses on how ballet has transformed from the beginning of the 20th century to today. Last summer, Blatt continued to learn new works and styles, dancing at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Company Experience as well as Joffrey Chicago’s Summer Intensive, and taking part in CPYB’s summer course.
“Learning about other subject matters and acquiring critical thinking skills allows performing artists to gain a deeper understanding of their own artistic pursuits,” Blatt says.
Students at CPYB enter a rigorous ballet program that's internationally renowned.
Ferris represents the growing number of young alumni who have emerged from Dickinson’s dance program during the nine years since Dickinson established its dance certificate. Some have gone on to apprentice with dance companies and to pursue choreography careers on the East or West Coasts. Some dance nonprofessionally while launching unrelated careers. Others married dance instruction with science—most as occupational or dance therapists, or at nonprofits. Ferris also lives at the intersection of movement and science, though in a unique way.
At Dickinson, Ferris was a Benjamin Rush scholar and physics major who studied classical ballet with a CPYB instructor; completed classes in dance history, global dance, anatomy and choreography; and performed in Dickinson’s Dance Theatre Group (DTG) performances. She also earned a national physics honor, conducted student-faculty research, served as a teaching and admissions assistant and fulfilled several summer internships. “I really enjoyed being a part of both the Dickinson community and the CPYB community. Both were very accommodating to me and my schedule, which enabled me to continue to train at a high level while pursuing my degree in physics,” she says.
Ferris says that in Skaggs’ choreography class she learned how to apply what she was learning in dance classes with what she was learning as a physics major and vice versa. The result: original research—conducted in the lab, and on stage—on the role of mechanics and gravity in dance performance and on the interplay between dance as an expressive art form and as a technical description of Newton’s Laws.
After graduation, Ferris put that research into motion by dancing in the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre production of "The Nutcracker" at Cutler Majestic Theatre and the Strand Theatre in Boston. She’s now enrolled in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Ph.D. program, through Harvard Biophysics, and plans to continue to dance while pursuing her doctorate.
Ferris says that, just like varsity-level athletics, the benefits of rigorous ballet training extend into the academic and professional arenas, providing a useful template for later success.
“Ballet has taught me how to be self-disciplined, what it means to be dedicated and passionate about work, and about the critical importance of a supportive and mentoring community. And in both ballet and scientific research, personal drive and dedication along with a close relationship with the larger community are critical components of success,” she says. “Dickinson's dance program is a hidden gem, and for ballet dancers who are trying to decide between joining a company or going to college, I think it’s a great way to find middle ground.”
Published November 8, 2019