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Congratulations, you just graduated! Now what?

graduating high school

It’s graduation season, and amidst the celebrations, parties and congratulatory cards is the one question that sparks anxiety in every dancer: “What’s next for you?” Whether we’re training at a studio, performing on a contract or recovering from an injury, a dancer’s future is never certain nor stable. And one of the most intimidating decisions might be where to start your journey after you graduate high school. Do I make the big move to Los Angeles or New York City? Should I pursue a major in something other than dance in case this doesn’t work out? Will I be taken seriously if I don’t attend a prestigious conservatory program?

Each dancer’s journey is unique and personal. And one path is not necessarily “better” than another. Dance Informa interviewed eight professional dancers whose paths differed immensely. All of the dancers have two things in common, however: 1) They all are successful professional dancers in New York City, and 2) Each of them maintains that their post-high school decision was the right choice for them.

1. Hitting the Ground Running

Jessica Lee Goldyn, currently in Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!

Where are you from, and what was your dance training growing up?

Jessica Lee Goldyn.

Jessica Lee Goldyn.

“I am from Parsippany, New Jersey. My earliest dance training was at the age of three at Mary Lou Hale’s School of Dance. As a teenager, I received ballet training with New Jersey Ballet Company, and I fell in love with musical theatre through my training at Worth Tyrrell Studios. I then attended the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS) for high school and commuted daily from New Jersey to Manhattan.”

What was your plan after high school, and why did you make that decision? 

“I never really had a plan for college. My plans for after high school were always to audition and try to make it in theatre. I knew I wanted to live in New York City and dreamt of dancing on Broadway. I loved PPAS for all of the acting, singing and dance classes and how much I learned artistically. But I struggled in the world of academics. I remember feeling that same way ever since elementary school. I would always just rather be dancing! So I left PPAS my junior year of high school and got my GED on my own. I decided to just start auditioning right away. I was cast in an immediate replacement track on the international tour of Fosse and found myself dancing and exploring the country during what would have been my senior year of high school.”

What made this the best decision for you?

“School was not my thing. I just wanted to perform; it’s where my heart has always been. I could memorize a script in a day but couldn’t bring myself to memorize a page of history notes. I knew what I wanted to do, and I’ve always believed in just going for it full force (and possibly falling flat on my face instead playing it safe). I was chomping at the bit and knew it would make me happiest to just get out there and start trying. I felt ready for showbiz, and I knew school would always be there if I wanted to go back.”

What were the challenges of this decision?

“I had no doubt I was making the right decision. My mom supported me, but my dad was worried. He knew how hard it is to make a living in this business. He didn’t want me to struggle in this career, but in the end, he still supported me in following my dream. I only wanted to make my parents proud. And I could feel my dad breathe a little bit easier with every show I did!”

How do you believe your decision affected your career?

“I think had I stayed in school, I would’ve put my professional career on hold. I’m also not sure I would’ve made my Broadway debut as early as I did had I stayed in school. I was 19 when I played Val in A Chorus Line. Leaving junior year, going on tour, getting my equity card soon after that and then making my Broadway debut — it all just lined up. I’m a big believer in things being ‘meant to be’, and this all felt very ‘meant to be’.” 

What advice would you give to a dancer who chooses a similar path?

“My advice to all would be to follow your heart. Trust your inner voice. Only you know best what will make you happiest and what will help you get to where you’re going on your own personal journey.”

Skye Mattox (Recently in Broadway’s On the Town)

Where are you from, and what was your dance training growing up?

“I’m originally from New Hampshire. My mom owned a studio, and I grew up dancing there until I was 15. After that, I was going into Boston four days a week after school and studying intensively at Jeannette Neill’s Dance Studio under their pre-professional program called Boston Youth Moves. It was an amazing program, and it really taught me how to discipline myself as a dancer.”

Skye Mattox.

Skye Mattox.

What was your plan after high school, and why did you make that decision? 

“I decided to graduate a year early from high school so I could move to New York City and try to start working right away. So I was actually still 16 years old when I finished high school! I made that decision because I was so excited and antsy to get to the city, and I thought I would have time on my side starting out in the business at a young age. I would have time to find my way and more years to dance. But mostly, I was just overly excited to move to NYC!”

What made this the best decision for you?

“Not continuing to go to school after high school was definitely the best decision for me because I think if I had waited, the thought of going to auditions and pushing myself out of my comfort zone would have become scarier as time went on. Being so young, I didn’t really know what to expect, so I wasn’t afraid. With every audition or job or performance, I am always learning new things. So thrusting myself right into the real world was my ‘college’ of sorts.”

What were the challenges of this decision?

“Coming into the business at such a young age certainly had its challenges as well. I had very little vocal training, so that was a big weakness for me. If I had gone to college for musical theater, I probably would have been vocally stronger from the start. I also had to figure out little things myself like laying out my resume properly and picking out the right audition outfit.”

How do you believe your decision affected your career?

“Despite those challenges, if I could go back in time, I still would not change the decision I made. This is one of the very few lines of work where not going to school can work to your advantage. Three of my biggest mentors have been David Marquez, Josh Bergasse, and James Kinney. If I hadn’t moved to the city when I did, and been in their classes at Broadway Dance Center every week, I would be a completely different person. They shaped who I am as a dancer and pushed me to be better, always. They were and continue to be my teachers.”

What advice would you give to a dancer who chooses a similar path?

“My advice to anyone choosing this path would be to always maintain a great work ethic. Let your passion for what you do drive you, and never become complacent. Work hard and stay motivated. It will go a very long way!”

2. Studying at a Conservatory 

Nathan Madden, currently in Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!

Where are you from, and what was your dance training growing up?

“I started as an ice skater actually. I lived in North Dakota, and it was either ice-skating or hockey for your choice of after-school activities…and not much else! I didn’t really like the violence of hockey, so I picked ice-skating. I excelled pretty quickly and was sent to do pair skating. My coach had said that I needed to take ballet, but there wasn’t a studio anywhere nearby, so my mom and another woman in town started a ballet studio…in North Dakota! That’s how I got into dance!”

Nathan Madden.

Nathan Madden.

What was your plan after high school, and why did you make that decision?

“I wanted to go to study musical theater at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, and double major in dance. But it was kind of a fluke that I ended up at Juilliard. Honestly, I auditioned just to piss off a teacher of mine who didn’t really believe in me. It was amazing when one by one the other students of my high school got cut, and I was the last dancer standing! I got in!”

What made this the best decision for you?

“Well, I knew that you must go to Juilliard if you make it in because it’s such an incredible school. But I also knew deep down that I could leave if it wasn’t for me. It didn’t take long, however, for me to realize I was in the right place. I loved Julliard for all four years of my program. I was exposed to so much and explored all that the program and the city itself had to offer.”

What were the challenges of this decision?

“I had a lot of opposition in choosing my career path, especially during my senior year of high school. My family moved to Houston, and I attended the performing arts high school. I was a dance major but wanted to sing and act as well. I explored outside of my high school program and worked at night at local regional theaters (ultimately getting me my equity card). When I was cast as Ren in Footloose, it really changed me. I was good at it, it was the first big role that I had, and it reaffirmed that this was what I wanted to do. 

Then at school, opportunities like Broadway and So You Think You Can Dance started pulling at me. I realized that I needed to decide whether I wanted to stay at Julliard or start working in show business. I didn’t want to leave school and the family I was building there, so I stopped auditioning until I graduated. If you sign up for a four-year program, then that’s what you committed to. (If you leave, you essentially took someone else’s place who would’ve stayed and graduated. Remember that.) I wanted to finish what I started, learn and experience all I could in the program, and get my degree!”

How do you believe your decision affected your career?

“It’s an honor to be a part of this community. Being here in the city and going to school at the same time was hard, but I was very committed to school and am happy that I didn’t drop out to do a show. Chicago, An American in Paris and now Hello, Dolly! have all been unbelievable experiences. They each came at the perfect time in my life.”

What advice would you give to a dancer who chooses a similar path?

“Say ‘yes!’ No matter what is being thrown in front of you, have the courage to say ‘yes’ to it. Think outside the box, try something new, accept the challenges that come, and you’ll be so thankful that you did; they’ll make you a better person and shape you deeper as an artist. My awesome dance professor, Risa Steinberg, would say, ‘Reinvent yourself all the time.’ You’re changing every day, so you can’t stay the same. You have to keep learning, growing and exploring. You have to constantly work on yourself and your art; otherwise, you’ll be left behind.”

3. Majoring in Dance

Kenneth Murray, recently in Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour

Where are you from, and what was your dance training growing up?

“I was born and raised in Sayville, New York, on Long Island. When I was five years old, I was watching my sister in ballet class, and I remember being so mesmerized by the movement. As soon as Valerie was released from class, I ran over to my mom and told her that I wanted to do that as well. And so I did. I studied ballet, tap, jazz, musical theater, lyrical, modern and ballroom to name a few. As the years passed by, dancing became my passion, and I realized that this was something I definitely wanted to pursue professionally. When I entered high school, I started taking dance even more seriously than I already had been. I enrolled in another school where I mostly took ballet to improve my technique before auditioning for different universities.”

What was your plan after high school, and why did you make that decision?

“I always knew I wanted to go to college after high school because I wanted to receive my degree. I knew after I was finished dancing professionally, I wanted to be able to maybe go back to a university and teach or open up my own dance studio where I would offer classes to children with special needs. I ended up going to Adelphi University to study Dance and Marketing. Being exposed to many different techniques and professors during my four years at Adelphi truly helped me grow artistically and technically. I graduated with a BFA in 2015.”

Kenneth Murray.

Kenneth Murray.

What made this the best decision for you?

“To me, going to college was the best decision I could have made, for I grew immensely as a performer over those four years I spent at Adelphi. Taking ballet and modern five times a week (sometimes more), plus tons of rehearsals, truly helped me become a strong, technical dancer. Now, being a professional dancer, I can truly appreciate that training, for it has helped me more than I could have ever imagined during auditions. I wouldn’t be half the artist I am now had I decided not to go to college. And listen, everyone’s path is different, but for me, I am happy with my decision to have gone to college.”

What were the challenges of this decision?

“I always knew that I wanted to go to college and get my degree. I would say that the only ‘challenge’ I faced would be wanting to audition for certain musicals or shows that I thought I might be right for while I was in college. I didn’t audition while I was in school because I was nervous about having to decide to take a job and leave school or stay. Ultimately, I knew that I would end up choosing to stay in school, but I did not want to have that fear of missing out on my conscious. And actually, it ended up happening my senior year. I wanted to just go on an audition and see what it was like, and I ultimately booked the job and found myself in that position of struggling on what to do! In the end, I decided to stay in school for my last semester and get my degree.”

How do you believe your decision affected your career?

“I believe that my decision to stay in school affected my career in a positive way. Going to school and exposing myself to many different styles of dance helped shape me into a very versatile performer and artist. After school, I went on tour in Europe with a modern dance company, and when I returned I knew I wanted to pursue musical theater. I started auditioning for anything and everything. Having gone to school and being versatile in the way that I moved, I believe truly helped me with many of these auditions and ultimately helped me book Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour on Broadway. There are so many different styles of dance in our show, and I believe all the time and sweat I dedicated in college truly helped me get me to where I am today.”

What advice would you give to a dancer who chooses a similar path?

“I would say go to school. Study hard. Dance as much as you can. Listen to your professors. Execute corrections well, and apply them every day in class. Get into voice lessons. Go on as many auditions and be seen by as many casting directors as possible so they get to know what type of performer you are. Drink lots of water. And last but not least, love what you do and you will never work a day in your life.”

4. Double-Majoring

Elizabeth Dugas, dancer at The Metropolitan Opera

Where are you from, and what was your dance training growing up?

“I was born in Lafayette, Louisiana, and began dancing at age two. All the women in my family danced at some point, so I started young. When I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, my parents enrolled me in a studio that competed, so by second grade I was traveling the country participating in various dance competitions. As a result, my training was extremely versatile — jazz, tap, ballet, pointe, acro, contemporary, modern and hip hop.”

What was your plan after high school, and why did you make that decision?

“My plan after high school was always to go to college. What I was going to do there was the big question. Due to this uncertainty, I ended up applying to 12 schools — some for dance, some for academics and a couple that had a combination of both. I was lucky to get in to many of the schools, which didn’t make my decision any easier! With a little push from my dad, I decided to go to the University of Michigan because I could double major (in dance and communications), and it was a highly ranked academic school with an intimate conservatory-style dance program.”

What made this the best decision for you?

“For one, I’ve always been a firm believer that it’s important to have a life outside of your art. The University of Michigan was able to provide an environment for me to meet people outside of the industry and also discover hobbies and passions that didn’t involve performing. Secondly, I really value my degrees and the four years of growth and commitment they represent. I wouldn’t trade them for coming to the city and potentially beginning my career at a younger age. Not to mention, it’s comforting to know that I have a ‘back-up’ plan in another field should I decide to hang up my dance shoes one day.”

Elizabeth Dugas.

Elizabeth Dugas.

What were the challenges of this decision?

“Because I went to a four-year college, I came to the city and ultimately began my career four years later than some of my dancing peers. As a dancer, our performance career is limited, and that time is valuable.”

How do you believe your decision affected your career?

“At first, I felt a bit disadvantaged because I really had to focus my first couple of years in New York on making connections and being seen in order to develop a presence and a reputation in this business. Now, being removed from that initial experience and dancing amongst peers who took different paths in the same highly competitive jobs, I can confirm that going to college was the right decision for me. I feel those four years were crucial in my development as an artist and human being. Also, I’ve worked with many creatives who have told me they look for college graduates when hiring because they tend to be smart, well-rounded artists.”

What advice would you give to a dancer who chooses a similar path?

“I think my biggest advice would just be to not try and rush through your college years to get to the next phase and begin your career. Enjoy college and realize how important it is in your journey. Because if you’re meant to be a professional performer, you’ll get there regardless of the path you choose.”

5. Majoring in Theater

Synthia Link, recently in Broadway’s Bullets Over Broadway

Where are you from, and what was your dance training growing up?

“I’m originally from Long Island, New York. Growing up, I danced at June Claire School Of Dance and took lots of tap, jazz and ballet. I was lucky enough to study under incredible teachers who were working professionally in the business. They really prepared me for my next steps.

After high school, I went to Marymount Manhattan College in NYC. After my classes, I would take at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway. Going to school in the city was a huge blessing because I had so many training centers and incredible teachers at my fingertips. I was really lucky.”

What was your plan after high school, and why did you make that decision? 

“If you had asked me at three years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you that I was going to be on Broadway! My plan was to graduate high school, go to college and start auditioning as soon as I could. I went to a high school that had an incredible theater program. I found a community of friends who were all really passionate and intelligent people. In fact, there are a lot of us who are still doing this professionally! I’m really lucky to have incredibly supportive parents; I couldn’t have done any of this without them. Having them behind me enabled me to follow my dreams.”

What made this the best decision for you?

“I always loved school, and I grew up in an environment where reveryone went to college. I always wanted the experience of going to college, and when I realized that I could study theater, I was sold! I think that I grew up a lot during those four years. Personally, I don’t think I would have been ready for the audition world had I gone straight from high school.”

What were the challenges of this decision?

“Because I went to college in New York City, I definitely felt the itch to audition for professional gigs. The one job I always auditioned for was the Rockettes. I booked it my senior year at MMC! I knew it was a job I couldn’t turn down. I accepted the job, took a semester off of school, loaded up on credits when I got back and ended up graduating with my classmates. It was a ton of work, and it was definitely a struggle to go back and finish after that experience, but I’m so grateful that I got my degree.”

How do you believe your decision affected your career?

“I think getting a degree is really important, and I do think that you learn a ton about the craft, but nothing can truly prepare you for the audition world. You can’t really simulate it in a classroom, and it’s impossible to really understand the energy, pace, pressure and preparation needed to be successful in the room. I learned a lot in school, but I always say that I learned (and still am learning) the most when I entered the professional world.

Synthia Link.

Synthia Link.

I do think that I did a lot of growing up in college. In addition to my theater courses, I took courses that weren’t theater-related. Studying other subjects made me a well-rounded person.

Susan Stroman once told me that experiencing and discovering the world makes you a better actor/performer. I think that college is an incredible experience, and it absolutely informs the human being you will become. It’s a period of life when you truly discover who you want to be and if your chosen path is right for you.”

What advice would you give to a dancer who chooses a similar path?

“I think it’s crucial to make the decisions that are right for you as an individual. Your friends are going to choose certain paths. But just because they decide on one thing doesn’t mean you have to follow. Listen to your instincts, and go with your gut. There is no rush! If you want to go to school, don’t be afraid to ‘lose four years’. You have your entire life to go for it; taking four years ‘off’ for college is a life experience that cannot be duplicated.

My other advice would be to take care of your body! Treat it with respect, feed it well, and strength train in addition to your dance classes. Your body is your instrument, so you have to maintain it.

And lastly…don’t give up! This industry is hard. You get rejected, you hear ‘no’, your body hurts, and you’re constantly studying and working. There are going to be so many people who tell you that this isn’t a viable career choice, or that you’ll never be able to support yourself working in the performing arts. It can be exhausting. You have to surround yourself with a strong support system. Find the people who lift you up, believe in you and have your back. There will be a lot of difficult times, but then there are those moments when you hear ‘yes’, when you book that job, when Broadway finally calls, when your family sees you dancing up on stage beaming with pride. Those are the moments that make it all worth it!”

6. Designing a Major

Phil Colgan, recently performed at Paper Mill Playhouse

Where are you from, and what was your dance training growing up?

“I was born and raised in Staten Island, New York, and grew up as a competition dancer. I started when I was seven in hip hop, tap and jazz, and as much as I always loved it, I’d say I really started taking my training seriously when I was around 14 or 15.”

What was your plan after high school, and why did you make that decision?

“I planned to attend NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, a program that lets you design your own course of study rather than declaring a traditional major (my concentration was ‘Entertainment, Production and Performance’). I knew I wanted to do something in the entertainment industry but didn’t necessarily plan on pursuing performance and choreography at that age.”

What made this the best decision for you?

“Because Gallatin focuses on individualized study, I was able to really tailor my education to what I felt I needed for my career. Once I made the decision to pursue musical theater professionally at the end of my freshman year, I was able to literally list out the things I felt I needed as an aspiring performer and creator and redirect my course-load toward those goals. Also, because I went to college in NYC, I was able to audition for professional work all throughout my college career and train at places like Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway. Actually, ‘doing the thing’ I was studying and training for put my qualifications into perspective, and I was able to identify my weak spots and work on them.”

Phil Colgan.

Phil Colgan.

What were the challenges of this decision?

Being in New York and auditioning gave me the bug to work—hard. I really wanted to book an exciting job that would force me to leave school and have some kind of fantastical experience, but I also had this gut feeling to push through and finish college.  I actually stopped auditioning for a while when work started coming my way so that the temptation wouldn’t be there. 

How do you believe your decision affected your career?

“Ultimately, staying in that program afforded me pivotal opportunities that I would never have gotten otherwise. Who knows what could have unfolded or where I would be if I had left, but I’m really happy I trusted my instinct to stay.”

What advice would you give to a dancer who chooses a similar path?

“Do what is right for you. In this business, you have to forge your own path; no two journeys are ever the same. I knew that my program was a space where I could hone my craft on my own terms; but if something like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes around and you know you need to take it, trust that feeling. Don’t knock down opportunities because you thought your story was supposed to go a certain way. Trust your gut!”

7. Pursuing a Non-Dance Degree

Megan Levinson, Radio City Rockette

Where are you from, and what was your dance training growing up?

“I am from North Caldwell, New Jersey. It’s a small town about 30 minutes outside of Manhattan. Growing up, I trained at New Jersey School of Ballet in Livingston, New Jersey, and attended School of American Ballet Summer Intensives.”

What was your plan after high school, and why did you make that decision? 

“After high school, it was really important to my parents that I attended college. I attended Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, for Psychology. I would go into Manhattan at least four times a week to take jazz and tap at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway. I was so determined to not only get my degree but also follow my dream of dancing professionally.”

Megan Levinson.

Megan Levinson.

What made this the best decision for you?

“I really wanted to keep my dance and academics separate. Living so close to New York City, I wanted to take advantage of everything it has to offer. I decided that Montclair State University was a great in-state, affordable school and a quick ride into Manhattan.”

What were the challenges of this decision?

“The major challenge with being a full-time student and taking so many dance classes each week was finding the time to sleep. Another challenge was the traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel. Sometimes I would sit in two hours of traffic; it got really exhausting!”

How do you believe your decision affected your career?

“I believe that my decision to attend MSU and train in NYC — along with hard work and determination — greatly affected where I am today. Before graduating high school, I had never taken tap, and I barely took any jazz. Having access to all of the most incredible teachers and dance classes changed me as a dancer. Training at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center opened up my eyes to so many different styles.”

What advice would you give to a dancer who chooses a similar path?

“Never stop dreaming. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else because everyone’s journey is unique.”

By Mary Callahan of Dance Informa.

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