Students take time off of Harvard for any number of reasons. They volunteer at non-profits, study abroad in the Middle East, find high-power internships, or work on political campaigns.
Others want to dance.
Among them: Kaledora F. Kiernan-Linn ’18, who recently announced her leave of absence from Harvard in order to pursue dance full-time with the Boston Ballet; Jennifer Wang ’18, who is taking her next semester off to dance at Joffrey Ballet in Chicago; Sofie Rose A. Seymour ’15, who took a semester off last year to choreograph dances for the American Repertory Theatre; and Javier F. Aranzales ’16, who is taking this semester off from Harvard in order to dance abroad as one of the founding members of Colombia’s first national ballet company.
Professional-level student dancers are a rare breed. The time, coordination, and dedication demanded by dance makes it nearly impossible to simultaneously maintain a full academic schedule and a professional ballet career. Many students find it debilitating to balance the two pursuits.
Up until the week she took her leave of absence from Harvard, Kiernan-Linn, who goes by the stage name Kaledora Fontana, would wake up early, take the T to ballet, skip part of rehearsal to sprint back and attend classes, head back to ballet, return to the dorms to do homework, and catch a few hours of sleep late at night. Another full day of dance would await early the next morning—and every morning after that.
“I felt like I was jeopardizing my position in both places,” she explains. The missed rehearsal time was quickly adding up, and it became increasingly difficult to maintain the level of focus required to both perfect dance moves and complete a full college workload. “I realized that you won’t get the most out of your college experience if you’re trying to do too much,”
Kiernan-Linn says, “and I was doing all the hard stuff without getting any of the reward. For me, taking a leave was my best option.”
Kiernan-Linn is not the only dancer to face such a dilemma. Wang, who is taking next semester off to dance for the prestigious Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, shares her own hectic schedule. “In terms of classes, I signed up for Ballet III, which meets on Mondays and Fridays for an hour and a half, Ballet II, which meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an hour and a half, the Jose Matello Ballet Theatre drop-in class on Wednesdays for an hour and a half, and the Harvard Ballet Company class on Sundays from two to four. While Saturday is technically my ‘day off,’ I usually have an hour of rehearsal on Saturdays too.”
And if having ballet every day of the week wasn’t enough, none of these dance classes are for credit. “This semester I’m also taking Ec10a, Math 21a, Chinese Ethical & Political Theory, and Expos 20,” said Wang.
Frenetic schedules among student dancers are not the exception, but the rule. Last year before his semester off, Aranzales danced for the Harvard Ballet Company, performed with the Expressions Hip-Hop Dance Company, and participated in Ghungroo, Harvard’s largest South Asian cultural dance showcase. “Each of these brought weekly rehearsals about three hours each,” he wrote to FM in an email. “I also incorporated two weekly ballet classes into my schedule the spring semester of my sophomore year.” Currently, Javier is in Bogota, Colombia dancing as a founding member of Colombia’s first national ballet company.
“[Here] I am dancing Monday through Saturday, 12:30-5. [We] begin each day with our sacred ballet class [before diving] into rehearsals for our upcoming tours and shows.”
For Seymour, on the other hand, “it’s always been a mix between theater and dance.” In addition to being involved with the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club since freshman year (with rehearsals for shows alone running from 4-15 hours every week), she also dances with the Harvard Ballet Company and the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company, co-develops the Harvard Dance Project (the first dance class on campus that is offered for credit), and works to advance social awareness through dance choreography. “At a certain point I’ve realized that [dance] is the language through which I work. It’s the language through which I think, and if I can keep pursuing it at a high level, I can find a way to pursue social justice through dance,” she says.
For Wang, prioritizing time for academics meant giving up time for ballet. “It was so difficult to keep up,” she admits. “I was doing pretty well when I first started, going to all my classes 5-6 days a week. But for the past couple of weeks, midterms have been killing me.” She explains that the dance center is in the quad, so while the class is only an hour and half, it’s actually a three-hour process. “It was okay at first, but it was just getting harder and harder to actually get out of my seat, where I’d be doing homework, to go dance. When too much was happening, I would just be too stressed to go.”
Kiernan-Linn echoed this sentiment. “I found myself doing the bare minimum, trying to survive my classes instead of getting the most that I could out of them. And that’s not what I was here for,” she said. “It was the same thing with ballet. I wasn’t pushing myself to the fullest because I was physically exhausted. I felt like my body was giving out—like if I pushed myself any harder, I would have hurt myself.”
Despite the rigor and commitment required by ballet, Harvard students who choose to take time off to pursue dance professionally find their sacrifices worthwhile.
“I know how lucky I am,” declares Kiernan-Linn. “I’m so, so, so fortunate to have found what I wanted to do at age 7 or 8. And it wasn’t like I was ever trapped into dance because of my family, or because I felt like it was something I had to do. I could have quit it in high school, or when I got into Harvard, or even now. I’ve always had the chance to do other things. But I’ve never left it because it gives me joy.”
Aranzales started dancing when he was 13 after being inspired by a classmate’s ballet performance in the 8th grade talent show. “I went to the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet conservatory in Miami with my father on one rainy day in June and nothing was ever the same,” recounts Aranzales. After dance came into his life, it became his form of mental and physical rejuvenation, as well as his go-to source of happiness. “One is very fortunate in life if they are able to find that one thing that fills them with so much life and joy, and I am very blessed that for me that is dance.”
Seymour similarly finds dance an essential part of her life. “I am not happy nor sane unless I am dancing. I’m more fun to be around when I have dance in my life, and I’ve come to accept that I can’t live without it,” she says. She explains how a decade of dancing has changed the way she approaches the world. “At this point, I don’t know if my brain is naturally wired, but movement has become another language or lens through which I see things. Even when I’m not dancing I see movement in music. When I’m bored on trains I picture dots moving in circles.”
“I would describe ballet as my life,” explains Wang. “Performing really makes it worth it in the end, when people are finally seeing all the hard work you’ve been putting in. That feeling that you get when you perform is something that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s such a rush of adrenaline, to be able to dance on stage.”
Fortunately, a college education and a professional dance career do not have to be mutually exclusive. Instead of pursuing the two simultaneously, Aranzales plans to focus on one at a time so that he can get the most he can out of both experiences. “I am very grateful that Harvard made this choice so easy because of its flexibility with students taking time off,” Aranzales wrote to FM. “With Harvard’s supportive policies, it was a given that I would take time off to pursue my wildest dream and [then] return to Harvard when I feel fulfilled with my dancing experience.”
Wang expressed a similar sentiment, declaring, “This has worked out so perfectly. I got to go to Harvard, I’m going to be able to dance professionally, and I can come back if I want to. It’s the best possible scenario.”
Kiernan-Linn knows that she wants to come back to finish her education, but she’s not sure when. “The future is completely unknown. There’s no certainty, and it’s scary. I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back. It could be next year, or it could be in ten years. I was telling this to my artistic director the other day—basically crying in his office—and you know what he told me? He said, ‘that’s the beauty of it.’”
There is a certain beauty in taking the road less traveled at a school where roughly one in three graduating seniors will go straight into finance or consulting.
As scary as it is to break into unchartered waters, these students have found it liberating. “It makes me so happy, it’s so rare—and while it’s so sad for me to have to give up going to Harvard at this exact moment, this is an opportunity that I can’t give up,” says Kiernan-Linn. “This is the only time in my life that I’ll be able to dance."