Courtesy CalArts

College vs. Contract: What to Consider Before Taking a Leave of Absence

Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.


The To-Do List

Thinking about taking a leave of absence? Make sure you check off these boxes first.

1. Meet with the head of your program.

Your college's department chair can offer guidance on whether a leave is feasible with your program's requirements. Together, map out when you'll take your remaining classes so you can still graduate in a timely manner.

2. Talk to the financial aid department.

For many universities, financial aid is only offered for four years. If you receive scholarships, loans or grants, meet with an advisor to learn how taking a leave could affect your funding.

3. Consider your motivations.

Discuss why you want to take the job with your program director so they can help you figure out whether it's going to propel you toward your long-term career goals, says Rhonda Miller, director of the commercial dance program at Pace University. Also talk through the opportunity with faculty members and other mentors you trust.

4. Fill out the paperwork.

Your leave will need to be approved by the registrar and your dean to make it official, says Cynthia Young, associate dean at the California Institute of the Arts School of Dance.

Worth the Sacrifices? One Dancer's Take

Lauren Soto (with fist raised) took 15 months off to tour with West Side Story.

Petr Nasic, Courtesy Soto

Although taking a leave of absence can be a juggling act, the benefits can make the sacrifices totally worth it, says Lauren Soto, now a senior studying commercial dance at Pace University.

Soto was in her sophomore year when she landed the role of Teresita and the alternate for Rosalia in the international tour of West Side Story. The job required her to travel for 15 months. She sat down with Rhonda Miller, the director of her program, to talk through the logistics, her career aspirations, academic schedule and readiness for the real world. Soto couldn't take off more than a year if she wanted to keep her academic scholarship, so she made it work by taking online classes while she toured.

Since Soto's ultimate career goals were in musical theater, taking the job was a smart move that helped her strengthen the acting and singing skills she didn't focus on in her dance-centric college program. The gig also helped support her financially when she returned to Pace. "I would decide to take a leave and go on tour one hundred times over," she says.

The Drawbacks

Delayed graduation: Although degree requirements are different at every school, taking a leave makes graduating on time nearly impossible.

The temptation to drop out: Once you've had a paid performing job, it can be tempting to just continue working. "You might be seduced by the professional world, and then feel like 'Well, maybe I don't need my education,' " says Miller.

FOMO (fear of missing out): As silly as it sounds, it can be difficult to watch the classmates you started college with reach milestones without you. This was one of the hardest things for Soto to cope with when she returned to school. While her close friends were going to auditions and gearing up for graduation, she was now in the grade below. "It was so difficult to watch them, feeling like 'That should be me. I should be graduating,' " she says.

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Courtesy Schelfhaudt

These Retired Ballroom Dancers Started a Dance-Themed Coffee Company

Like many dancers, when Lauren Schelfhaudt and Jean Paul retired from professional ballroom dancing in 2016, they felt lost. "There was this huge void," says Schelfhaudt.

But after over 20 years of dancing, plus United States and World Championship titles, reality shows, and high-profile choreography gigs (and Paul's special claim to fame, as "the guy who makes Bradley Cooper look bad" in Silver Linings Playbook), teaching just didn't fill the void. "I got to the point where it wasn't giving me that creative outlet," says Paul.

When the pair (who are life and business partners but were never dance partners—they competed against one another) took a post-retirement trip to Costa Rica, they were ready to restart their lives. They found inspiration in an expected place: A visit to a coffee farm.

Though they had no experience in coffee roasting or business, they began building their own coffee company. In 2018, the duo officially launched Dancing Ox Coffee Roasters, where they create dance-inspired blends out of their headquarters in Belmont, North Carolina.

We talked to Schelfhaudt and Paul about how their dance background makes them better coffee roasters, and why coffee is an art form all its own:

GO DEEPER