The author and Joffrey CE Intern Leah Ollie

By Leah Ollie, Joffrey CE Intern

As the dance community shifts to accommodate changes within the world around us, the traditional pathway to a company contract is adapting as well. Dancers, arts administrators and educators have been re-evaluating key questions that motivate dance training as we know it. What does excellent dance training look like these days? Who receives these opportunities? Will a standard program truly prepare one for a career of artistry? I set out to answer these questions by gaining the perspectives of professionals and students in our current climate, and gauging some insights as to how they view their individual journeys.

First, it’s necessary to break down how most people are introduced to the wonderful world of dance, and what opportunities make it possible for them to continue training at higher levels. Often programs like those offered by Joffrey Community Engagement on a community level or an after-school class for children are the first impression given to a young dancer. These roots are important, because they dictate who gets to dance and who has the opportunity to engage with art in the first place. An example of such classes is the Joffrey’s own Bridge Program! Phase I includes in-school programming with CPS school partners, giving the opportunity to experience the joy of dance at an early age to CPS students for free. In Phase II, elementary students are offered free training at Joffrey Tower on Saturdays outside of CPS Partner coursework, and students are provided with dancewear and proper shoes.

After elementary level classes, many dancers move on to competitive circuits and more intensive training after school, on weekends, and summer intensive tracks. Those who are truly committed and have the means to continue may venture into year round pre-professional programs, then attempt to enter the professional dance world. These year-round programs help to prepare dancers for their own artistry, as well as extend networking skills and make connections on a company level.

However, as we know, there is an exception to every rule, and not every dancer follows this cookie-cutter journey! Extremities and outliers are more common than one would think, particularly considering the changing atmosphere of accessibility and community outreach. The rise of freelance artistry, a global pandemic, and a new digital era of innovation within the arts has turned people into their own one person brand, company, or machine! Dancers can advocate for themselves as well as share their personal journey, just like the ones I had the honor of speaking to for this article: read ahead for their profiles!

Pablo Sanchez is no stranger to the Joffrey, and has a wonderful history of education and inspiration with our CE department! Before the age of 7, Pablo lived in Mexico and pursued his love of dance there locally. Upon moving to the States and attending public high school, Pablo dedicated his experience at Indiana University to dance as well. Pablo graduated in the year 2010, and shortly after became a trainee of the second inaugural Academy program at the Joffrey. This demanding environment prepared him for a career with Memphis Ballet as well as providing a foundation for his own creative works. Since that time Pablo has expanded into choreography and maintains a connection as an After School Matters teaching artist since 2015 as well as a Winning Works Artist and frequent collaborator with Joffrey CE. Pablo has built his own repertoire through reconnecting with the next generation of dancers, sharing that “setting a positive example for the next generation through Winning Works is a rewarding full circle experience, and being on this individual journey is the most rewarding part”.

Olivia Tang-Mifsud has a similar story to tell. At the age of 5 she began her ballet training in California, putting in the work until she reached the San Francisco Ballet’s pre-professional school after graduating high school a year early. Tang-Mifsud says that the exposure to performance opportunities as well as emphasis on work ethic she gained there were paramount to her journey as an artist and mindset today. In her fifth season with the Joffrey, she reflects on how quickly that time has passed. Teaching students at her home studio as well as observing the next generation in training programs such as her own have also been a major source of fulfillment and inspiration for this artist, and she looks forward to connecting with audiences and storytelling through art more in the future.

Jonathan Dole’s journey as an artist is a bit closer to home; now in his second season as a Company Artist, Dole hails from the Joffrey’s own trainee program. He credits the Academy with a robust dance education, as well as a social connection to the company that made the transition from student to artist a bit easier. Taking personal responsibility for putting in work and training alongside professional peers is a skill Dole has learned to adapt to, and he’s no stranger to competition. Beginning his dance education as a child at a competitive studio in California provided a well rounded foundation in many styles, and gave Dole the tools to become a more well rounded artist. He’s grateful for this early introduction to a diverse training, and says that starting with styles other than ballet has helped prevent burnout in the present.

This early start is a common thread between the artists we spoke to, proving that exposure is everything. One example is a dedicated Joffrey Academy student named Morgan. Morgan was first introduced to the Joffrey as a CPS student in our Bridge program, and as a result of her natural talent and outstanding work ethic, progressed through many levels at the Academy. She remains committed to her studies as a high school student, but balances them with the class load of a second year Level Four Academy dancer. Phase IV of the Bridge Program includes a full scholarship to the Joffrey Academy, a prize Morgan has worked hard to earn. Morgan truly represents Joffrey CE’s goal of providing equitable access to such training, so every student has the opportunity to grasp professional standards and a quality dance education. The importance of the Bridge program lies in the priority that all students get that access and the opportunity to work their way up, even to the highest ranks of a company. Those roots and the advocates who will champion today’s students will encourage them for years, and lead us into a better tomorrow of well-rounded, well-supported and well-adjusted artists.

To finally answer the inquiries that inspired this piece, I have come to a collection of revelations. Excellent dance training accommodates the individual’s needs, while refining their technique as well as offering space to develop artistry. Such training has in the past been extended to select groups of people who can afford it, but with the work of organizations such as Joffrey CE, it is being promoted for free to students at young ages to inspire them for years to come. A standard pre-professional program may not guarantee a company contract, but the beautiful thing about the power of dance is that new opportunities are being created all the time. Freelance networks, teaching positions, and performance spaces are diversifying. The life cycle of a dancer is beginning to orient towards longevity, overall wellness, and adapting to the changing landscape of dance in the 21st century.