Balancing College and Career: 3 Dancers, 3 Different Degree Paths

November 7, 2023

More and more, it seems dancers are interested in pursuing college alongside their professional ballet careers. Of course, the necessity of “plan B” remains an ever present refrain, but for many dancers education isn’t just the plan B — it’s just as important a part of their artistic and human development as their dancing is. 

However, sometimes it can feel impossible to do both, and there is certainly no set path to follow. Pointe spoke with three dancers at various stages in their careers who have approached higher education in different ways—and proved that there is more than one way to do it.

Yuka Iseda does a saut de chat with her arms in first arabesque, looking out and up over her left shoulder. She wears a long, white Romantic tutu, pink tights and pointe shoes. She dances in front of a blue backdrop.
Yuka Iseda as Giselle. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Philadelphia Ballet.

Yuka Iseda

Principal dancer, Philadelphia Ballet

Graduate, Keio University of Japan

For Yuka Iseda, the dream of becoming a professional dancer almost passed her by. In high school, when most dancers consider pursuing a career, “I thought I wasn’t good enough,” she says. “So I thought maybe I’ll just continue for fun.” She then enrolled in Japan’s prestigious Keio University as a literature major, dancing when she could and taking open classes near the university or at her local studio.

But by her third year of university, Iseda had obtained enough credits to have a lighter academic schedule, and started to put in more time at the studio. Upon graduating college, she’d been training fairly rigorously, and wanted to take a shot at a professional career. “People said I was too old,” she remembers. But Iseda didn’t let this deter her. She looked abroad and auditioned for companies in Europe, and luckily got a contract at Dresden Semperoper Ballett.

Of course, it was difficult to start her career with almost no professional experience. “I had to learn how to work. I was making lots of mistakes.” But though it was hard, she wouldn’t change a thing about her path. “I got to do something other dancers didn’t,” she says of earning an academic degree first. Studying languages and literature in college has driven her to seek connections between Japan and the U.S., particularly with Philadelphia Ballet, where she is now. Plus, it has made her a more well-rounded dancer. “I still love dancing because I started [a professional career] late,” says Iseda.

Benji Pearson does a tendu derriere croisé with his right leg back during a performance onstage. He raises hi right arm up and folds his left arm in so that his left hand touches his left shoulder. Pearson wears an all-blue unitard and blue ballet slippers. Behind him, two female dancers in blue pose in tendu croise devant. They perform in front of a black backdrop.
Benji Pearson in William Forsythe’s Blake Works I at Boston Ballet. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Boston Ballet.

Benji Pearson

Former corps de ballet dancer, Boston Ballet

English major, Harvard College

When Benji Pearson started college, he hadn’t been in school for six years. At 15 years old, after moving across the country to attend San Francisco Ballet School, he took the GED to complete his high school studies. It wasn’t until much later into his career at Boston Ballet that he enrolled in Northeastern University, which has a special partnership with the company. And just last May, he retired at 23 to attend Harvard University, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English.

For Pearson, balancing academics and the ballet season had been difficult. “As amazing as the [Northeastern] program was, I felt like I couldn’t fully dive in and wanted to be able to give myself fully to it,” he says. Now, he has turned his full attention to being a student and experiencing college, dancing and experimenting with choreography with the Harvard Ballet Company.

But though he calls it a “retirement,” Pearson sees this as part of his journey as a dancer, rather than an end. He was inspired by a Boston Ballet colleague who took three years off to explore other creative work before returning to company life. “I would see how all of that experience could inform her dancing,” he says. “It was all enriching.” So though he’s giving his all to the academic experience now, the door to his professional ballet career is not closed. The pandemic, Pearson notes, was crucial to inspiring this decision. Not only did it give him time to take some college classes, but it also “helped show us that it is possible to take time off and be fine. I’ve done it before,” he laughs.

For now, he’s committed to his studies, just as he was to ballet in previous years. “I didn’t know what it would feel like to stop dancing,” Pearson said. “I didn’t know what it would feel like to do something I’ve never done before. I needed to figure out who I am as a person, who I am without ballet first.”

In a large dance studio, five dancers (three women, who stand in front of two men) rehearse a ballet, facing profile towards their right with their legs bent and in parallel. they hold their arms at their sides and look out over their left shoulders. The women wear black Victorian-style dresses and pointe shoes while the men wear rehearsal clothing and ballet slippers. To their left is a row of four twin beds on wheels with a dancer crouched on each one.
From left: Olivia Jacobus, Amelia Meissner and Marisa DeEtte Whiteman rehearse Val Canipaoli’s Jekyll & Hyde at Kansas City Ballet. Photo by Beeh Becvar, courtesy KCB.

Olivia Jacobus

Apprentice, Kansas City Ballet

Business major, Cambridge College (online)

Not many people would say that school serves as a form of comfort — but for Olivia Jacobus, an apprentice at Kansas City Ballet, academics has always been a rewarding priority. She’s been doing online school since the 10th grade to accommodate a demanding pre-professional training schedule, yet managed to graduate high school as valedictorian. Since then, she’s been chipping away at a business degree through online courses, first through Seattle University and starting next spring, with Cambridge College out of Boston.

“I really enjoy school and I’m not gonna dance forever,” says Jacobus. “So even if it’s a slower process, gathering those credits and working towards a degree… once I finish dancing I want to have something that I can apply myself to just like I do for ballet.” Jacobus takes one or two courses a semester in order to maintain a high level at her professional job and at school.

While this is the higher education path that has worked for her, Jacobus is quick to note that it’s not one-size fits all. “A lot of people have asked me, ‘How should I balance college and career?’ And I can’t really give them an answer because what works for me is not going to work for someone else.” But though it can be scary to not have a roadmap, it can also open up unique opportunities. “It’s kind of awesome to see how many different paths people have taken. It’s inspiring in a way, because people are doing it! They’re out there trying, and if they can do it, I can do it too.”