NYCDA’s new mission helps send competition kids to college
By Joshua Bartlett
Last year, Cindy Reid was a high school junior from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, who didn’t know where she was going to college or how she was going to pay for it. Thanks to the New York City Dance Alliance Foundation college scholarship program, now she does.
A student at the Young Dance Academy, Reid had attended the NYCDA workshops since she was 8 and had gone to their national competitions three times. Last July, she auditioned for a scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College as part of NYCDA’s New York City summer workshop and won $48,000 in scholarship money, disbursed over four years.
“My dream was always to go to New York,” says Reid. “It didn’t seem possible. I walked into this audition and did what I needed to do. Getting this scholarship really decided where I was going to school next year.”
Linking competition and education
Very seldom are the terms “dance competition” and “higher education” paired. But Joe Lanteri, the executive director of NYCDA, has created the link as a natural outgrowth of his organization. “The way I like to put it is we have been nurturing some of the best talent in the country for the last 17 years and now is the time to literally start investing in them,” he says. “A lot of the universities noticed that a common denominator among many of their better dancers is the NYCDA.”
Colleges now come to recruit dancers every summer at NYCDA workshops and have a fixed amount of money to award in scholarships. “The college sets the parameters and decides what the criteria are for application,” says Lanteri. “NYCDA is the conduit in that we provide the audition opportunities, but the colleges make the selection.”
This year’s four-day summer workshop will take place at the Sheraton New York July 4 through 7. The scholarship hopefuls (who must attend the workshop) will audition the day before, on July 3, and the awardees will be announced on the final day. In addition to the scholarships awarded directly by colleges, the NYCDAF plans to award four scholarships of $10,000 with an additional $50,000 to $150,000 in scholarship monies to be granted in increments of $25,000. These NYCDAF scholarships can be used for a performance major at any college of the recipient’s choice.
Applications for the workshop are due on May 13, for a discounted rate, and applications for the scholarship audition are due by June 25. The audition is open to those who have completed their sophomore, junior, or senior years in high school. Priority consideration will be given to those heading into their senior year.
It all began in July 2009, when Lanteri teamed up with Scott Jovovich, an adjunct professor at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and NYCDA faculty member. Lanteri had been discussing a college scholarship program for years, and Jovovich’s desire to recruit dancers for University of the Arts formed what Lanteri calls “the perfect step to create something much bigger.
Jovovich knows that there is a limited amount of scholarship money, and the university audition process makes the monetary dissemination a bit of a gamble. “Sometimes you invest in a student who is not as focused as you thought they were going to be,” he says. “If a student doesn’t deliver or drops out, the scholarship money goes back into a general fund, and the department can’t re-award that money. I kept thinking there was a better way to do this. It finally occurred to me that I work for an organization that sees thousands of dancers each year, and I watch these kids grow up in Dance Alliance. It’s a much better way to aim and invest. Much to my surprise, I was able to convince the university’s powers that be to give this a shot.”
In 2009, University of the Arts awarded more than a quarter of a million dollars in full scholarship tuition to two NYCDA students at the July competition. (The value of each scholarship begins with full four-year tuition; depending on financial need, the potential exists for extra money for housing and food. The value is approximately $127,600, according to Jovovich.)
One of the students, Richard Villaverde, competed as one of the six finalists with his group, Dance Town Chaos, on Paula Abdul’s Live to Dance. In July 2010 two other students, Anthony Tiedeman and Laura Ksobiech, each received $127,600 in scholarship awards. About 100 students have auditioned for the scholarships in the last two years.
Patrick Gerstle, completing his freshman year in May 2011 at University of the Arts, was one of the 2009 winners of a scholarship that pays his full tuition for four years. A native of Rockledge, Florida, he participated in NYCDA competitions for two years while in high school and credits his proficiency in several styles, like jazz, contemporary, and ballet, which are stressed in NYCDA workshops, in helping him to win a scholarship. “If I didn’t get this scholarship, I probably would never have gone to college,” says Gerstle.
Jovovich says that when choosing scholarship recipients for University of the Arts, he looks for students—like Gerstle—who show versatility. “To compete in the dance world today, you need to do everything,” he says. “What I look for is a student who has it all, and is looking for it all. I look for a respectable academic history, involvement in extracurricular activities in school and in the community, and a strong dance background. The truth is that because we train performers at Arts, and because it’s a scholarship for a dance program, the kids who audition lean toward performing careers. That does not at all mean that if a student auditioned who was an exceptional dancer and was looking toward a career in the arts with a more academic focus, that student would be ineligible. It’s simply not happened as of yet.
“If I didn’t get this scholarship, I probably would never have gone to college.” —Patrick Gerstle, University of the Arts student
“If I didn’t get this scholarship, I probably would never have gone to college.” —Patrick Gerstle, University of the Arts student
“I look for people who are not strictly into one discipline but who treat each one as if that’s what they are intent on doing,” Jovovich continues. “They should be intense about modern, ballet, jazz, contemporary, tap, and singing/musical theater. A school that puts out only a contemporary style won’t necessarily produce the dancers I will look at. They need to have a well-rounded syllabus.”
Silencing the skeptics
Lanteri realizes that there are skeptics when it comes to the partnership of college and dance competitions. “As with most college organizations, there tends to be a little bit of hesitancy,” he says. “They think what we do is all about trophies and rhinestones. And I have to try and say, ‘Yes, much of our industry is about that, but you have to realize that’s not all we do. That’s never been our emphasis, that’s not the type of people we attract.’ And I will publicly say all the time that those people who are looking for a trophy should probably go someplace else. NYCDA gets the dancers who are looking to invest in their future in a different way.
One of the initial doubters was Katie Langan, the chair of Marymount Manhattan College’s Dance Department. “I was totally a skeptic,” says Langan. “I am not a competition baby. My feelings about that are not always very positive. But when I saw how well the dancers were trained, I was very impressed. The talent level was very different. Joe seems to be attracting schools that are really doing some training.”
Last July was Langan’s first experience as part of the NYCDA college scholarship audition process. She taught some of the master classes, conducted the audition class in ballet (for 28 of those who wished to attend Marymount Manhattan College), and watched the students in other classes and rehearsals during the workshop week. Five people, including Reid, received a total of $236,000 in scholarship money for tuition over four years beginning with the 2011–12 academic year (four students received $48,000 and one received $44,000, which will cover roughly half their total tuition). Langan says she was looking for “potential, technical ability, artistic quality, and how well they presented themselves.”
NYCDA has been touring the country as a commercial dance convention for 17 years; currently it visits 23 cities throughout the year. The organization has alumni in many dance companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City Ballet, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, as well as in numerous Broadway shows and Radio City Music Hall. Participants in NYCDA have also attended many of the dance departments in colleges and universities in the country.
“We have been nurturing some of the best talent in the U.S. and watching them filter into every aspect of the professional dance world,” says Lanteri. “It just felt like the time was right to take the next dance step. Everyone knows that we have been pro-education, pro-college, pro-continuing to invest in yourself and your future. None of this has been about winning a prize, but about working the best you can to your full potential and earning everything that will come to you in your life.”
Over the years, Lanteri had written numerous letters of recommendation for students applying to college, answered questions about where to get funding, and listened to the difficulties students experienced in obtaining funding for higher education. “I think more kids would choose college if they could realistically fund it,” says Lanteri. “I have [encountered] parents who have said to their kids, ‘We’d love to send you to college, but you’re going to have to accept the responsibility for saving for student loans.’ I have reached out to places to help people get money. And it was clear it was time for something else.”
In an expansion of the NYCDA college scholarship program, Lanteri announced the initiation of the NYCDA Foundation in December 2010. A 501(c) (3) public charity, the organization plans to raise further funds for student scholarships. “I was floored at how quickly the approval came through from the IRS,” says Lanteri. “I applied for it in May 2010, and people told me it might take years. I looked at that as a sign.”
Gold ($25,000) sponsorships have been donated by Capezio, Steps on Broadway, Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and Dance Magazine, giving the foundation a base of $100,000 moving forward. “We are seeing donations trickle in. We see dance studios raising money within their own community for the foundation,” says Lanteri.
In celebration of the launching of the NYCDA Foundation, last December Lanteri produced Prelude, a fund-raiser, at The Joyce Theater in Manhattan. Dancers from The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Parsons Dance Company, and Complexions and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballets participated. “We put out the challenge that we were hoping to raise $1 million in scholarships for July 2011,” says Lanteri. “That’s a combination of what the attending colleges will contribute plus what we’ll be able to raise ourselves.” In the future, Lanteri plans to do at least two fund-raising events annually for the foundation.
Is this the first time a competition has teamed up with higher education? Maybe not, but Lanteri points out that “there is no other independent organization looking to award this kind of money. Plenty of places might offer a stipend of $5,000 to $10,000 to college. We are looking to be in that $25,000 to $50,000 bracket.”
Lanteri also claims that the plans for July 2011 are “just a thumbnail, just a fraction of what we hope to do eventually.” Point Park University in Pittsburgh will be recruiting this year, along with Marymount Manhattan and University of the Arts, and Lanteri says other colleges have tentatively agreed as well. (Even if students don’t win a scholarship, they can start the application process for admission to the schools). In addition, he has planned an audition for July 31 in connection with a NYCDAF fund-raising gala in New York City on August 1. It will be exclusive to dancers from studios that have facilitated in raising money for the foundation. “The message is if you are willing to do the work, then you might benefit from the work you’ve done,” says Lanteri.
Ultimately what he wants to see are tangible results from alumni of NYCDA. Gerstle is already building on his experience with NYCDA as he progresses at University of the Arts. “I never want to stop growing as a dancer,” he says. “I keep finding myself getting better and changing. This school will never let you become complacent with yourself. There is always something that needs to be worked on.”
Reid, who will start her studies at Marymount Manhattan in fall 2011, is champing at the bit to get those results. “I think about getting my academics and professional training while being involved in and surrounded by New York City,” she says. “I’ll be branching out with what I have learned to help me get a job.”