Finance Your Fouettes, Pay for Your Passes

August 2, 2009

Like most college seniors, Carolyn Steeves has one foot firmly planted in the business of graduating (counting credits, honing her technique) and the other somewhat gingerly feeling its way out into the real world (exploring job possibilities and cities to move to). But due to the economic crisis, the 21-year-old Cornish College of the Arts dance major is not sure exactly how she’ll be able to pay for her final year.

“I have an internal turmoil every time I take class,” she says. “You have to dance every day if you want to be the best you can. But it’s hard to know if I’m going to be back here next year. Am I not going to be able to finish my degree because of this economy? Is it all going to be for nothing?”

Carolyn’s family has struggled to stay afloat during the recession—her father’s hours at an auto-body shop have been cut, and her parents have lost a big chunk of their retirement fund, all of which has cast a burden on Carolyn. She works almost 30 hours a week at a Seattle coffee shop in order to pay the rent, and 6 to 10 hours as an administrative assistant for the Cornish Prepara­tory Dance Program. Though she has secured a dance department scholarship for 2009–2010, it will cover only 10 percent of her tuition, leaving her and her family close to $60,000 in debt by the time she graduates. “I’m extremely scared that I won’t be able to take out as many loans as I need to graduate. Loans loom over my head every day when I wake up.”

Carolyn is not the only dancer laboring long hours to pay for her education during this economic downturn. DM spoke with college and high school scholarship students from University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, and the Boston Ballet School who are staying in school by taking out loans and working multiple jobs in administrative offices, dance studios, clothing stores, and restaurants—and often by making sacrifices as a family.

Last April The New York Times reported that while most schools are not decreasing their financial aid budgets, more students—even those who didn’t request assistance when applying—are vying for aid, meaning there is less to go around. Some schools, like the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, antici­pated that fewer students would be able to attend, and as a result accepted more dancers for the incoming class in order to meet class sizes.

That said, many universities are committed to retaining their students in need. “Because dancers spend so much time rehearsing and performing, they have less time available for traditional work placement, which puts a lot of pressure on their ability to save for an education, both during high school and college,” explains Chris Pesotski, director of financial aid at University of the Arts. Knowing that the economy was getting worse, UArts set aside an appeal fund specifically geared towards retaining students. (The school has already gone through $360,000 and has budgeted in the same amount for 2009–2010. Ailey has a similar fund.)

Additionally, dancers are working harder than ever outside the studio, clocking in between 10 and 30 hours a week in dance department and financial aid offices, in cafés and clothing stores. At UArts, Pesotski has seen a 10 percent increase in student hours worked per week—and he’s seeing more students seeking summer employment.

Recent grad Makeda McGill, 21, got through UArts by working four jobs her senior year as a work-study student. With six younger siblings, the modern dance major had to be self-sufficient. So on top of receiving several grants and scholarships (which paid for most of her tuition) and a small subsidized loan, Makeda worked four part-time jobs. She was an administrative assistant in the dance department and student financial services offices; a dance tutor for underclassmen; a mentor to incoming freshmen; and a sales girl at an Ann Taylor clothing shop on the weekends.

“With the economy going down, I’m a little more nervous about paying back my loans, because there are less job openings,” Makeda admits. Nonetheless, her plan is to continue dancing with choreographer Zane Booker and working at Ann Taylor. And she’ll take dance class at UArts for free. “It’s a great alumni benefit,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about paying for class.”

Many students are making it through the crisis by making sacrifices as a family. “My mom jokes that she hasn’t bought new mascara for herself in forever because of me,” says Brittany Rogers, 17, a student at Boston Ballet School. While 20 percent of Brittany’s room and board is covered by scholarship, she takes care of her subway passes, groceries, and pointe shoes by working as a teaching assistant at Citydance, Boston Ballet’s educational outreach program. “When I got the job,” she says, “I called my mom and cried hysterically because it was going to help so much.”

Brittany has also learned to forgo a latte at Starbucks in favor of the bigger picture—with her mom’s help: “My mom logs on to my bank account to see how I’m doing and what I can cut back on,” she says.

Willie Smith III, 22, a recent UArts work-study ballet graduate who dreams of dancing with Complexions or Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, has also learned to budget and save. “Whenever I need groceries, I always make a list and look at coupons,” he says. Willie received the National High School Dance Scholarship, which covered 10 percent of his tuition for four years (after UArts matched the scholarship). He also worked in the dance department office and as a host at an Italian restaurant, before getting hired by Eleone Dance Theatre (where he gets paid for performances). But with his sister in a pre-med program, and his father in and out of the hospital after suffering a stroke, Willie has taken on more responsibility since the economic crisis hit. Now he pays for his leotards, tights, shoes, and travel to auditions.

But more than learning to budget and stand on his own two feet, Willie has learned to never take no for an answer. When he realized that he needed more money his freshman year, he approached his department head, who told him that scholarships were only for upperclassmen. Instead of giving up—or dropping out—he walked over to the financial aid office and applied for the NHSDS, which he got. “The more you put yourself out there,” he says, “the more people will see how eager you are to get the money.”

Despite ongoing fears about how she’ll pay down her debt, Carolyn—a self-declared “workaholic”—is determined to figure out a way to finish her degree. “At the end of the day, I still have arms, legs, and a head, and I can still dance,” she says. “I’m going to school and it’s grueling, but I have to remind myself: This is what I’ve loved since I was 3 years old. It hasn’t changed for the last 18 years, and it’s probably not going to.”

Abigail Rasminsky, a former editor at
Dance Spirit, has written for Dance Magazine, The New York Times,, and Fit Yoga.


Illustration by Diane Bigda