Why New York City Ballet principal Abi Stafford decided to start college—and how it changed her dancing.
When I finished high school, I didn’t have any aspirations to go to college. After all, I had already been a professional dancer with the New York City Ballet for six months; I certainly hadn’t needed a degree to enter the workforce. I didn’t have to go to college—I was a ballerina!
Fast-forward a few years, when I came to the startling realization that my career as a performer would not last forever. After a serious foot injury forced me offstage for a year and a half, I began assessing my interests outside dance and was disconcerted to discover I had countless gaps to fill. I didn’t have any hobbies unrelated to physical activity. When forced to sit still, I didn’t know how to occupy my time.
Still, the years kept passing and I kept saying, “Someday.” Then my brother, NYCB principal Jonathan, enrolled at Fordham College at Lincoln Center to study business—and the little sister in me felt those pangs of sibling rivalry. I couldn’t let my big brother beat me at something!
What’s more, I knew that I’d be covered by the scholarship program available to dancers at NYCB. Bari Lipp is the founding director of a fund called Dance On, which helps cover college tuition costs. (There are many similar programs and grants out there for dancers at other companies to take advantage of.)
Now I’m taking classes at Fordham College’s campus in Westchester, NY, where I live with my husband. In contrast to the Lincoln Center campus, where many dancers take courses, in Westchester I don’t feel like just another dancer: I’m an adult pursuing a degree. My first course was European History, which I completed this spring; now I’m tackling a theology class.
Attending college has given me an entirely different focus, and my dancing has been affected in unexpected, gratifying ways. Ironically, shifting my focus away from ballet has allowed me to change and grow as a dancer. I’m no longer obsessing unhealthily about my technique and performances, but happily engaging my mind elsewhere.
Finding the nerve to try new things academically has helped my confidence onstage, too. I want to be more than just a ballet dancer; I want to be a mature artist and person, and I know that to do that I need to step outside my comfort zone. The unfamiliar challenges of college have given me the courage to take more risks in ballet. After discovering that I could succeed academically, I was able to believe that my instincts and choices as a dancer might also be valuable. I’m experimenting with my ideas in the classroom—and with my artistry in front of thousands of people.
On the flip side, it’s sometimes difficult giving up my downtime to attend classes. I want to complete my studies in the classroom, where I feel I learn better than I would online—but that requires sacrificing my day off. Now Mondays are spent scrambling to finish up projects or papers. It’s a different kind of work, too. Grasping spiritual theories in Faith and Critical Reason, my theology course, is a far cry from learning ballets.
But I know it’s worth it. I’m now eager to learn about many different fields of study to find what fits me best. Writing, law and real estate all pique my interest. Whatever I ultimately choose, I know that my college experience has changed me as a dancer and a person. Anxiety about my future has turned into excitement: I know my life after my performance career can be shaped any way I want.
Originally published in Pointe Magazine, October/November 2010