A Leap Forward

Story by Debra Holtz
Photography by Anne Dowie

While dancing for the Ballet Nacional de Caracas in Venezuela, David Fonnegra dreamed of someday performing with a big company in the United States.

“In South America, there are not too many men to do ballet, especially in Venezuela,” says Fonnegra. “As Latinos, we sometimes don’t believe we’re good when we come from a country where dance is not a priority.”

Now, after seven years with the Miami City Ballet, Fonnegra is a principal dancer with Diablo Ballet in Walnut Creek. He is also a student in Saint Mary’s Liberal Education for Arts Professionals (LEAP) program. He says working on his college degree has not only improved his English — he speaks four other languages as well — but is helping to prepare him for life beyond what’s called the “ballet bubble.” LEAP has opened his eyes to other fields he may consider when he retires from the stage in two years, such as computer engineering or teaching dance at a university.

Change is nothing new for Fonnegra. When he was a young boy, his Spanish-born mother uprooted him from Colombia to Venezuela because his traditionally minded father, an Israeli native, refused to let her work or study outside of the home.

“My mom raised us to be very independent,” he says of himself and his siblings, one a musician in Venezuela and the other a ballet dancer in Boston.

But Fonnegra, like many other professional dancers, found that higher education was not an option. He joined the Ballet Nacional when he was 13 and grew up in the company. Between touring and dancing in up to 180 shows a season, there was never time for college.“You have to dedicate yourself to the ballet and nothing else to be successful,” he says. “But we don’t see that there are more things out there to learn.”

Injury or age will eventually end the performing careers of dancers, usually by their 30s or 40s, and pursuing a new profession without a degree is difficult. Financial problems have also brought the final curtain down on many dance companies. Oakland Ballet closed last year and Diablo Ballet recently announced it will not be able to continue past the 2006–07 season unless it raises $500,000.

Claire Sheridan, who taught dance at Saint Mary’s and overseas for 20 years until injuries cut her career short, created the LEAP program in 1999 to empower dancers to move forward. She convinced the College that educating this underserved population is consistent with its Lasallian mission.

“It’s never too late to become a student,” says Fonnegra. “You get to a point where you have to find a way to get a career and have a future so that when you’re older, you will be fine.”

That moment of change came for Kyme Sallid in 2005 when she was juggling a hectic and unpredictable audition and performance schedule while raising a young daughter.

“I realized I really don’t want to do this anymore,” recalls Sallid, whose career in Broadway musicals and on television spanned 25 years. “It just wasn’t my heart anymore.”

So she closed one chapter of her life and opened a new one when she enrolled in the LEAP program.

Pas de Trois

Saint Mary’s Liberal Education for Arts Professionals (LEAP) program will debut this fall in the dance capital of the world — New York City.

The program will be offered in partnership with Manhattan College, Saint Mary’s sister school in New York. The move across country follows LEAP’s opening in Los Angeles in 2004.

“The expansion to Los Angeles taught us how to effectively and efficiently offer LEAP at a distance,” says program director Mark Baird. “We are ready and eager to reach out to the professional dance community in New York.”

Baird initiated the expansion by collaborating with New York–based organizations including the American Ballet Theatre, Career Transition for Dancers and Steps on Broadway.

Claire Sheridan, LEAP’s founder and core faculty member, created the LEAP/NY model and was responsible for the licensing and approval process. Sheridan says her vision for the program has always included a LEAP presence in the Big Apple.

“It was so clear to me that this is what I needed to do,” says Sallid. “There wasn’t a second thought for me.”

LEAP, designed for current and former dancers in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, provides an accelerated curriculum of three to four years of part-time, year-round study for a Bachelor of Arts degree. Since its creation, LEAP has enrolled 165 dancers from leading ballet, modern, jazz/tap and ethnic dance companies as well as musical theater, television and film.

LEAP director Mark Baird, a graduate of the program who danced for the Joffrey Ballet in New York and for companies in Europe, says moving from such a singularly focused discipline to a broad curriculum is liberating for dancers.

“While they’re dancing, that’s all they can do. No one has ever encouraged them to do other things,” he says. “Liberal arts opens up their thinking so that they can explore other passions and get a better sense of what’s out there.”

The program offers the opportunity to earn college credit for dance knowledge and experience, and students can also test out of some of the required dance courses for the performing arts major. Classes are held in downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles on Sunday or Monday nights to accommodate students’ perfor­- mance and touring schedules.

“It fit into my life in a way I could not have imagined,” says Sallid, who now co-chairs the Performing Arts Academy at the Charter High School of the Arts in Van Nuys, Calif., with her husband, director and choreographer Otis Sallid. “You’re in an environment with your peers and you’re totally supported. When you don’t think you can do it, your peers understand what you’re going through and won’t let you stop.”

Seminar classes are enriched by students ranging in age from their early 20s to their mid-60s.

“Being in a classroom with adults who have lived a bit as opposed to 18-year-olds brings in different perspectives.… We can discuss how the ideas apply to our lives,” Sallid says.

Sallid trained under legendary dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, but from her days at the famed High School of Performing Arts in New York City she knew not to limit her career to dance. Instead she chose to become a “triple threat,” specializing in singing, dancing and acting so she could continue her career past her prime dancing years.

In fact, it was a serious injury to his toe joint that led San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Gennadi Nedvigin to the LEAP program in 2005 and kept him off the stage for a year. The pain was so acute that he couldn’t put any weight on his foot, much less do a relevé.

“I started getting thoughts in my head: ‘What if it’s not going to get better? What am I going to do?’ I couldn’t find anything that I could see myself doing,” he remembers.

It was perhaps the first time in Nedvigin’s life since leaving his family at 10 to join the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow that dancing no longer seemed like a limitless possibility. While professional ballet dancers without a college degree traditionally transition into teaching, Nedvigin says going to a studio every day after he takes his final bow doesn’t appeal to him.

Nedvigin had seen many of his fellow San Francisco Ballet dancers studying in LEAP and decided to join the program to gather ideas for what he can do in the future. Acknowledging what dancers call “the afterlife,” San Francisco Ballet awards education grants to help troupe members prepare for their eventual career transitions.

Writing quickly proved to be his biggest challenge because, like other immigrant dancers, Nedvigin had a limited knowledge of English grammar. As he had with French the year before while performing in Paris, he learned English by ear when he came to the United States 10 years ago — in much the same way he learned to dance.

“We’re musical people,” he says of dancers. “Our profession is with the music so we’re always listening. In Russia, we would never use counts. We would just listen and say, ‘On this note, we do the movement.’”

Nedvigin, who became a U.S. citizen last year, left Russia at a critical point in its history. “The whole country was collapsing right after the Soviet Union fell apart,” he recalls. “The system wasn’t working anymore. We didn’t get salary for a year and I really don’t know how I lived and survived.”

Since recovering from his injury and starting LEAP, Nedvigin is less afraid of the day he will leave ballet behind. He attributes his growth in part to a course all LEAP students take that requires them to reflect on their personal and professional experiences.

“We had to dig so deep in our lives from an early age,” he recalls of the essays he wrote for the class, including one about his transitions in moving to France and America. “Basically, you’re taking your life apart piece by piece and I guess that taught me a lot. I became a different person.”

After one year of studying, Nedvigin is also more philosophical about life.

“It already changed me and I see things with different eyes,” he says, hesitating to think for a few moments. “In a way, I see life as more brutal than it seemed to me before. I’m observing more right now, I look for things more than I did before. It’s like you see a color, you see red or you see shades of red. I cannot say it’s one thing. It’s moving up and being on a little bit higher ground, the whole picture of life, of what’s going on in life, in the world.”

When Kristine Elliott discovered LEAP in 2003, she had already crossed over from a 15-year career with the American Ballet Theatre in New York and the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany to a career teaching dance at Stanford University. Yet she still describes her experience in the program as “life-altering.”

“The works of literature that were offered, the way we could explore them deeply and the connections we made with them as artists gave me food for thought at every turn,” she says. “I looked at the world differently.”

Elliott was reading Siddhartha for the World Traditions class last year when she embarked on a trip to South Africa to teach dance to impoverished children in the black townships outside of Cape Town. The novel, which follows an Indian man’s journey toward spiritual enlightenment during the time of Buddha, was a source of inspiration to her.

“I found whole passages that related to where I was and what I was doing,” recalls Elliott, a guest teacher with the outreach organization Dance for All in South Africa who regularly brings her student dancers to the Bay Area for a summer of intensive dance training and cultural education.

Things Fall Apart, a novel about Nigerian tribal life also read in the class, enabled Elliott to understand why one of her South African students blamed her mysterious illness on having failed to complete a Xhosa tribal ceremony into womanhood that required she cut off one of her fingers.

“She may in fact be suffering from something quite serious, even life-threatening, but we will not find out because of her strong tribal beliefs,” says Elliott, pointing out that the clash between primal religion and Western culture is a major theme of Things Fall Apart.

When LEAP founder Claire Sheridan first heard about Elliott’s plans to teach in South Africa, she advised her to seek faculty development funds from Stanford, to read about the country and to make her work there the focus of her senior project.

“She guided me in so many ways that broadened my first experience in South Africa,” says Elliott, who was so smitten by the country that she returns every year. LEAP helped her find a professor to teach her Xhosa — the language of her South African students.

“I learned that ‘How are you?’ literally translates into ‘Are you still alive?’ ’’ Elliott says. “What does that tell you about how hard it must be to survive there?”

For Elliott and others, discovering another life passion helps prevent a traumatic letdown after their last curtain call.

Kim Burdge was first exposed to physical therapy when she suffered an ankle injury while performing with Labayan Dance in San Francisco, and sought out a practitioner with a dance background. During her six-month recovery, she earned a certificate in massage therapy and worked part-time at a sports medicine clinic in San Francisco.

“I looked at these people and they seemed like they loved their jobs and they were having so much fun. They seemed happy and healthy,” recalls Burdge. “I thought if and when I have to make a change, this is something that’s attractive to me.”

Meanwhile, her father, a physician, died unexpectedly of cancer. “I really thought he had done so much to help other people and I wanted to do something that would be of service to people in a different way.”

Unable to move from ballet into modern dance, Burdge decided to return to school. She chose LEAP because of the small classes and the camaraderie of fellow dancers.

“You’ve never seen a class full of so many perfectionists and people who take a task and really dig into it. When you’ve been dancing for a while, you’re used to taking a role and not just learning the steps but learning the music, not just memorizing the music,” she says. “You’re trying to find something new and personal in it, and everybody in my class would do that with a piece of writing, a piece of literature or an assignment.”

While dancers bring their highly developed sense of discipline and commitment to their studies, they are seeking connections to the larger world through the liberal arts.

“Dancers have been specializing since the time they were 6,” notes Burdge. “You’ve been focused on one thing your entire life. You know almost everything you need to know. But it makes it very difficult to communicate with the rest of the world.”

For Burdge, the LEAP program served as a bridge from dancing to earning her Master of Science degree from UCSF, where she now works as a physical therapist treating patients with neurological conditions and teaching students. While some retired dancers miss the spotlight, Burdge says she doesn’t look back because she loves teaching and working in the healthcare field.

“I always knew that it was a finite career. I had no grand illusions that it would last forever,” she says of dance. “You only get one life and if you can have more than one vocation in that time, you’re very lucky.”