In Preparing For Life After Ballet, This Dancer Is On Point

Every ballet dancer thinks ahead, to their next jeté, pirouette, and plié—but many do not plan for a career after their final curtain call. Through a unique partnership between Northeastern University and the Boston Ballet, professional dancers like Dawn Atkins can earn their college degree while continuing to train, perform, and hone their craft.

Atkins, a principal dancer for the Miami City Ballet in Florida, estimates she has danced in some production or another of “The Nutcracker” for about two dozen Christmas seasons—since she was five years old. It’s a grueling fixture on virtually every professional ballerina’s schedule, with multiple shows nearly every day of the week as the holidays ramp up. While most workplaces go quiet as employees travel and spend time with loved ones, ballet companies across the world are busier than ever.

“A lot of professionals get quite tired of it, understandably,” Atkins says. “But I love ‘Nutcracker.’ It symbolizes Christmas to me.”

A key section of the show, she says, made her decide she would be a dancer. She was 8 years old and in a production as Clara, the girl at the center of the story who gets a magical nutcracker doll as a gift. “She sits at the back of the stage on a throne watching the various dances,” Atkins says. “And it was the Sugar Plum Fairy-Cavalier pas de deux. The music was amazing. I remember seeing the lights hitting those dancers, and it was just the best thing in the world. And I was like, ‘I want that.’”

It’s a Friday afternoon in mid-December, and Atkins, now 29, will perform that very choreography later this evening as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She’s resting up at her home in Palm Beach County after morning practice. The Atlantic Ocean gleams behind her; her dogs, a Boston Terrier mix named Chappie and a Golden Retriever named Duke, are padding around inside.

Atkins looks almost too obviously the part: tall with blonde hair, long limbs and eyelashes. Roles of princesses and fairies, like Sugar Plum and the lead in “Swan Lake,” are her bread and butter; recently, a fellow dancer told her she was exactly what she imagined the Tooth Fairy looked like as a child.

By her own account, she is living her precise childhood dream. But she knows it isn’t forever. Professional ballet careers are punishing, all-consuming and short. Dancers call themselves “old” in their early 30s, and the long hours performing, training, learning choreography and maintaining physical peak condition don’t leave time for much else.

But Atkins is prepared for life after ballet. Because she happened to spend the first chunk of her professional years right down the road from Northeastern University.

Atkins earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northeastern while dancing with the Boston Ballet, thanks to a partnership between the company and the university. Now in its 10th year, the Boston Ballet and Northeastern pathway offers full company members generous scholarships and agile course design to fit around the ebbs and flows of their dancing careers. About 20 dancers are enrolled in classes through the program at any given time.

“The big crux of the partnership is preparing them for what happens after dance,” says Ari Schaaff, a Northeastern academic adviser and the chief liaison between Boston Ballet dancers and the university. “What do you do next if you’re retiring in your 30s? How do we support these students and prepare them for either continuing in the arts or going into something new?”

The program is meant to answer those questions, helping dancers complete undergraduate and occasionally graduate degrees with a super flexible framework.

“Dancers’ schedules vary wildly — I have been doing this for four years, and I still can’t keep track sometimes,” Schaaff says. “The classes fit around rehearsals, performances, national and international travel. We also have to factor in what happens when a dancer gets injured. That can really pivot things.”

An injury is what made Atkins really consider, for the first time, what her life might be without ballet. Growing up in Middletown Springs, Vermont, and Richmond, Virginia, Atkins took dance classes from toddlerhood. By early elementary school, she was telling her mother in no uncertain terms that she would be a professional.

At 14, she won a scholarship to the North Carolina School of the Arts, a conservatory-style boarding school for would-be dancers, theater and film artists, and musicians. Her conventional school experience more or less ended there.

“The priority in that program was ballet training,” she says. A typical day: “I would wake up, have two hours of academics. Then four hours of dance — so I would have a pointe class, or technical session, or a partnering class. Then we would go back to school for probably two more hours of academics. Then dance the rest of the day, from 3:30 until 9:30.”

After graduation, Atkins landed an apprenticeship with the Boston Ballet, where she spent a decade moving up the ranks and training between seven and nine hours a day. She considers herself relatively lucky on the injury front, but “lucky,” over the years has included a back fracture, a shoulder popped out of its socket, and several repetitive stress injuries.

In 2016, at 21, she fell hard in practice, requiring knee surgery and intensive rehab. During the downtime, she started her Northeastern degree. “It was my first big injury. You know going in that this career isn’t forever, but you don’t realize how fragile it is. That’s when I really realized it.”

“I remember thinking, this is a perfect time to try to do something else,” she says. “Because as much as ballet is a part of me, I am not just a ballerina. I’m a whole person.”

After taking a few core requirements, Atkins majored in business administration, packing her course schedule in the offseason — sometimes taking as many as seven classes at once. By molding her studies around her professional schedule, she was able to finish her degree in four years, graduating in 2020.

Schaaff says that drive is typical of the ballet dancers who come to Northeastern. “One of the greatest strengths that they bring to the classroom is directly reflective of the world of ballet in general — they are perfectionists. A lot of my conversations are, you know, soothing the wound of getting half a point off on an assignment. It’s reflective of the culture that they come up in. The standard is so high.”

After completing her degree, Atkins earned a Massachusetts real estate license; she has dipped her toe into property management in New England in the summer off-seasons.

“I don’t think that I want my next job to be in the ballet world,” she says. “Our hours are really rough. We work late. We’re busy at the holidays, we work weekends all the time. When I’m older I’d love to have more time with my family during Christmas.”

Before that, however, she hopes to have several more years of dance ahead of her, and more opportunities to push herself artistically. This spring, she will perform the solo in Balanchine and Jerome Robbins’ take on Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” a role she’s surprised and delighted to get a crack at.

“I’ve seen it most commonly performed by a tiny dancer, very sprightly and quick,” she says. “I’m tall, and I take longer to move my limbs. I’m excited for people to be like, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have put her in that.’ But I can do it.”

“As much as ballet is a part of me, I am not just a ballerina. I’m a whole person.”

—Dawn Atkins, CPS’20

This article was originally written by Schuyler Velasco
and published by Northeastern Global News.