Category: school

The gift of living—and making a living through—my passion

Aaron Orlowski, Sono Osato Scholarship Program for Graduate Studies Recipient

Aaron in the Nutcracker, Photo by Greg Hughes
Aaron in the Nutcracker, Photo by Greg Hughes

Inspiration to dance struck me when I was young. At the age of five, my parents took my brothers and I to the movie White Nights. I was awe-inspired, enthralled with what Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines were doing on that bigger-than-life screen.  After the movie I told my Mom, “I want to do that. I want to dance”.  She enrolled me in ballet classes the next week.  That moment represented a spark in my life that ignited a desire, a catalyst for who I would become and who I am today. I will always be a dancer.  Ballet opened—and continues to open—numerous enriching relationships and experiences which enhance my life and skills in all areas.  From my very first class and throughout my training, my passion for dance and performing grew, nurtured and guided by great teachers.  This passion and discipline was especially instilled in me by my mentor Randy Wray.  He opened the door to the possibility that with hard work, passion and dedication led me to become a professional dancer and to the gift of living—and making a living through—my passion.

I started my career by dancing with Ballet Internationale for two years before accepting a Soloist position with Nevada Ballet Theatre.  NBT offered wonderful opportunities to progress and grow as an artist, but making ends meet often presented a challenge.  My wife and I undertook the difficult task of finding a company where we would not only both be hired but our artistic goals and needs could be met. We were fortunate to find that at Ballet West, and I danced there for seven years.  There are many skills and experiences from my career as a dancer that continue to serve me off-stage: teamwork, discipline, dedication, and attention to detail to name just a few.

Aaron Orlowski graduating from University of Utah
Aaron graduating from the University of Utah with a Bachelor’s of Social Work degree

Because the career of a dancer is all too brief, I realized early the importance of planning ahead.  I began my transition journey a few years before retiring from Ballet West in 2010.  During that time, I was honored to receive the Caroline H. Newhouse Scholarship from CTFD, which allowed me to take classes at Salt Lake Community College and complete prerequisites for the University of Utah’s Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Program. While a full-time BSW student, I have taught ballet courses as an adjunct instructor at SLCC, worked at Starbucks, volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and interned with the International Rescue Committee. I am currently interning with Health and Human Services and still occasionally guest perform.  My transition journey has been challenging, rewarding, and worthwhile.

I graduated with my BSW in May, started on my MSW one week after graduating, and am currently in the midst of my graduate studies.  I’m in an advanced standing program with an anticipated graduation of next May!  Also, I am still teaching ballet and really value and enjoy teaching and maintaining my connection to the arts!  I am honored and grateful that CTFD continues to value my goals and greatly appreciate the support I have received in this next stage of my transitional journey.

Dance, Neuroscience, and Healing

Zina Mercil, Sono Osato Scholarship Program for Graduate Studies Recipient

My mom likes to tell the story of Zina Mercilhow I wanted to dance before I could even walk, hoisting myself up on the bars of my crib to sway to the music.  I took my first ballet class when I was 5 and from then on worked diligently to master the technique. Ultimately, when I graduated with my BA with Distinction in Neuroscience cum laude from Colorado College in 2003, I felt like I had two distinctly different paths; I chose dance.

I went on to dance professionally, doing several regional theater contracts like Cabaret, Chicago, CATS, and The Producers.  I also spent two years as assistant line captain and principle understudy in Don Arden’s Jubilee!  I felt so blessed to be dancing and making a living!

Four years ago, I moved back to Colorado because I felt a significant shift had begun.  I was not ready to let go of dancing, nor did I know what I wanted to step into.  This is when I first visited Naropa University.

In January of 2011 I began feeling ill.  After months of extensive labs, testing, and surgery, I was diagnosed with a very rare and chronic liver disease called Autoimmune Hepatitis and Cirrhosis.  I spent much of that year in bed, too exhausted to walk.

After having had no physical activity for so long, I started taking a yoga class for cancer survivors. I live in gratitude to dancing and this illness for being my greatest teachers. I want to share this knowledge of being present with our bodies, and the innate wisdom and intelligence that lie within when we listen.

All the experiences in my life are being integrated at Naropa University, where I am exploring the interface of dance and holistic healing.  I am finishing my first year of a  three-year MA program in Somatic Counseling Psychology with a dual emphasis in Dance and Movement Therapy, and Body Psychotherapy.  My plan is to complete my MA and continue onto PhD work in Clinical Health Psychology.

I feel blessed to be at Naropa, training to be a therapist, and combining my love of dance, neuroscience, and healing.  I am honored to receive the Sono Osato Scholarship so that I can continue to take my passion and training in dance and transition into a new career to serve others.

Healing on Many Levels

Elana Altman, Sono Osato Scholarship Program for Graduate Studies Recipient

I found ballet at the age of two. My mother taught ceramics classes at the JCC, and the ballet studio down the hall was the perfect solution for her to satisfy her toddler’s endless energy. Since then, there wasn’t a moment when dance wasn’t part of my life.

Elana in Firebird, photo by Eric Tomasson
Elana in Firebird, photo by Eric Tomasson

With my love of discipline and structure, ballet classes at a neighborhood studio were not enough. At age nine, I joined the San Francisco Ballet School, and ballet became the most significant part of my extra-curricular activities, winning my devotion and skill over gymnastics, running club, and piano. I had found my true love. The hard work paid off when I was offered an apprenticeship with San Francisco Ballet, and soon after a Corps contract and a promotion to Soloist. So many times I would walk the halls of San Francisco Ballet remembering growing up there; the majority of the experiences that shaped who I am today happened within those walls. It kept me thankful; it kept me humble; it kept me tethered to the dreams of that scrawny, frizzy-haired pupil who still lived inside me.

To the best of my abilities and circumstances, I fulfilled those goals. I joyfully devoured each and every role that came my way. As the opportunities kept arising, I often had to pinch myself; in no way have I taken my fairytale for granted. I knew it would eventually have to end. As I approached my late 20s, the thoughts of “what’s next?” started eating away at me. And that’s also when the pain really began.

Elana as Myrtha in Giselle, photo by Eric Tomasson
Elana as Myrtha in Giselle, photo by Eric Tomasson

Injury. Every dancer’s battle. I won the war for as long as I could, never once missing a performance in all of my 12 professional years until I couldn’t fight any longer. This past August, I got the definitive MRI result: my hips were done with ballet. As long as I kept dancing, I was creating significant damage to those precious joints. The decision became clear to me, and I was actually relieved I did not have to choose to stop dancing; the choice was made for me. I would have never been able to simply walk away from ballet.

The past months I have been healing on many levels. In July, I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, and I was determined to find a food studies graduate program to transition into my next passion. Good food and nutrition have been important parts of my life, and the more I read about the US Food System, the more I wanted to get involved to improve it. When I discovered the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy, the birthplace of the Slow Food Movement, it all clicked. Just as I once breathed ballet, I now breathe good, fair food. I want everyone to have access to food that is grown with sustainable practices and love, improving health and environmental consciousness.

Last month I applied to this University and was accepted, so now I’m picking up and moving to Italy for a year to immerse myself in the Slow Food manifesto. I’ll earn a Master’s in Food Culture and Communications and bring back time-tested wisdom and skill in order to make a difference here. Like dance, food is artistically stimulating to me, providing nourishment and a forum  of self-expression. This Master’s program will give me the tools to move forward with this next chapter of my life and find fulfillment and happiness in a new career, just as ballet has served my previous chapter.

Full Circle

By Kara Wilkes, Dancer-Client & Caroline H. Newhouse grant recipient

Kara Wilkes
Kara Wilkes with Alonzo King LINES Ballet

“You have always enjoyed school. You were a good student,” my mom has pointed out each time I’ve mentioned my interest in furthering my education. My professional dance career is twelve years old and has proven to be both challenging and fulfilling on many levels. Throughout these twelve years, I’ve desired and spoken of returning to school, but due to the time and financial demands required of a university student, it has caused me to continuously say, “later”. However, a year after my move to San Francisco to dance with Alonzo King Lines Ballet, and after further investigation into St. Mary’s College of California’s L.E.A.P. (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals) program, I felt my time had come. I enrolled and, to my great delight, have been accepted into their 25th cohort for the 2012 fall semester and plan on earning a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts.

L.E.A.P.’s flexible scheduling allows professional dancers to attend school while performing thus bestowing the gift of preparedness when their career ends. What my mom says is true: I liked school and I excelled in it. I love to read, write, and learn foreign languages. One could call me a seeker of knowledge for I’m in love with the notion that I am expanding. I enjoy philosophical talks immensely and my interests are extensive. On numerous occasions people have asked me, “What ‘s after dance?”. I’ve replied with various answers: English teacher, pizza maker, editor, florist, ballet mistress, film maker, dance agent, photographer, painter, mother…” Attending St. Mary’s College allows me the opportunity to taste various subjects, expand my ways of thinking, and whittle down my ongoing list of dream jobs or perhaps even discover a career path I have not yet imagined. I see returning to school as an opportunity to keep coming into my own so that I might come to a closer understanding of a right fit for my next career. Above all, I want to continue learning! The Caroline H. Newhouse Scholarship greatly assisted me in fulfilling a longtime dream of mine: furthering my education.

Read more about her career and how Chicago CTFD Career Counselor, Maryellen Langhout guided her transition on

From the Barre to the Bar

By Daniel May, CTFD dancer-client and Caroline H. Newhouse Scholarship recipient

To be a dancer is an all-consuming passion.   But it’s a short-lived career.  It makes you drag your tired butt out of bed in the morning, with every muscle aching, and trek down to the studio to start the day with a barre, stretches, floor work, rehearsal, and in many instances, a performance to end the day.  Dancers are conditioned to be disciplined, but a life in dance can make your pulse race like nothing else.

Daniel MayMy career as a dancer started my first year of high school.  It was “Once Upon a Mattress,” and I was in the chorus.  I loved it.  After a “long run” of two weekends, I started tap dance lessons.  It happened that my tap teacher was a ballerina with the Fort Wayne Indiana Ballet.  She came over to me after class one day and asked if I’d considered taking ballet lessons.

The next thing I knew, I was in class nearly every day.  I decided after two years of college that I was wasting my time.  So, I packed up and left the farm in Indiana and moved to New York in September of 1977.  The subway cost a couple of quarters and there was graffiti on every visible surface, but there were dance studios everywhere and dance classes at all hours. I remember taking classes with legends like Gelsey Kirkland, Helgi Thomason, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Natalia Makarova.  I also took class with Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse dancers.Dance is egalitarian—classes include stars and chorus dancers alike;  everyone is welcome as long as you keep up.  After all, we all knew we were just steps away from our big break.

My break came when I was cast in the tour of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’.  For years I performed and toured in musicals, dancing in New York and regional theaters, playing London’s West End, and even German television.  My last performance in a musical was in tights and high heels as a ‘Cagelle’ in La Cage Aux Folles.

By that time, I was over 30 and wondering, “where do I go from here?”  I had to make a decision:  move away from dance and see if I could work in some other part of the business, or transition into another career all together.

Dancers understand that there comes a time when the older generation has to move on, and I was lucky to have a life partner in Mark who also knew these decisions were right.  I decided to go back to school and complete my undergraduate degree.  And after that, I decided on law school—from the barre to the Bar.

Career Transition for Dancers is an important organization.  In its 27 years, it has assisted dancers who need to make the difficult and sometimes painful decision to end a career that’s like no other, and start another chapter.  The transition requires that a former dancer, still young, has to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree, or a vocational certificate, and in most cases, acquire an entirely new skill set.  I had to complete my Bachelor’s degree before continuing on to law school, and then the Bar exam.

Career Transition for Dancers provides help in navigating a dancer’s interests and skills other than dance.  They also provide grants for those returning to school; I received a grant that I included in my financial aid portfolio when I started law school.

As everyone who’s attended a ballet, or a Broadway show, or watched an episode of the new series “Smash” knows, dance is essential; it’s fundamental.  It’s a life for those who train and sweat to bring a beat and some beauty to the world.  And it’s a gift to those who watch and enjoy what it is that dancers do.  Bravo, Career Transition for Dancers.

What’s passion got to do with it?

By Laura Halm , Chicago Dancer-Client, Law School Student

I have spent the last 25 years of my life focused on a very singular goal, that of becoming a professional dancer.  Unaware of what it would ultimately require of me, I started dancing as a very young child. Even then, I was certain that if I dedicated all of my energies toward this dream, I would attain it; and, in truth, my path has managed to closely follow that plan.

Laura Helm performing Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Lickety Split”

I attended numerous dance schools of recognition and have had many opportunities that most aspiring dancers can only imagine. I attended The Juilliard School and have been a member of the Hubbard Street Dance organization in Chicago organization for over seven years. Nonetheless, a dancer’s career is short-lived by its very nature. The stresses of dance on the human body are great and eventually, it simply stops working as healthfully and efficiently as it once did. I found myself at that point last year. Refusing to believe that I had nothing more to offer the world, I looked both inward and outward to discover the next stage of my personal evolution.

I started reading various periodicals including National Geographic, Audubon, and the Atlantic in order to recalibrate my concept of the world at large. In reading numerous articles outlining current events, I became furious, disgusted by environmental destruction borne of ignorance, misguidance, and greed. Believing that I am capable of so much more than what I have achieved thus far, it is paramount that I continue to do something that allows me to make a difference in the world. I have already found (and wielded) the strength within myself to move audiences; it is now time to use that power towards a different end. Too realistic to believe that people will simply want to behave better of their own volition, I want to direct and influence others so that they may become better stewards of the planet.

I came to the conclusion, through much thorough deliberation, that above anything else, I want to study environmental law. Law school will give me the detailed and focused education that will arm me to take on my challenge of becoming a participant in policy creation and regulation.

I have survived a career in professional dance and despite my lack of practical experience in law, believe that I can apply that which is currently required of me towards this new endeavor. As a dancer, I already possess many important skills in a field where tradition and precedent is established, individual strength is respected, ability to think and react quickly is necessary, and intelligently directed creativity as a means of development is admired. I am, above anything else, disciplined.

I am honored that in August of this year, I will be joining the Class of 2014 at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. If my past successes are any indication of the future, I am going to be just fine.