By Eliza Randolph
Parents of teenagers know the drill—college tours, college applications, college admissions—the agony and the ecstasy. Starting in their junior year, the question of college looms on the horizon for many high school students. But what about studio owners? How much do you know about your students’ plans after high school, after the bittersweet final recital? How much do you participate in shaping those plans?
One school owner, Crystal Draper of Kinetic Expressions Dance Academy in Daytona Beach, Florida, so loved her college experience that she wants to send all her students off to school. She even took them on a road trip—not for a competition, but to visit her alma mater, Shenandoah University and Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia.
While most college dance programs offer tours, lectures, and classes as part of their audition process, Shenandoah offers “Dance Days” during which even high school juniors who are not yet auditioning can sit in on classes, auditions, workshops, and performances. As an alumnus, Draper made special arrangements and took her one junior and seven other interested students (some as young as 12) there last fall. They drove up from Florida to Virginia in one shot, with some parents as chaperones and Draper’s 2-year-old son in tow. Everyone chipped in to cover expenses.
“It was about opening their eyes,” says Draper, to what college in general and dance programs in particular can offer students. “Obviously it was extra special because it was my school and I could show them all my old stomping grounds.” But she also wanted very much to share with her girls “the same thrill I got when I went for my audition.”
Draper grew up in Ohio, and despite a rewarding stint of training and performing with a local studio, she knew she wanted college. And she knew she wanted to go far from home to stretch her wings. “The best thing I ever did was go away where I didn’t know anyone,” she says, “too far away to bring the laundry home on the weekends, far enough to miss my mommy. I felt like a big girl, like I was growing up.”
The sense of independence Draper developed at school carried over into her professional life. “Moving away to Florida where I didn’t know anybody and starting my own business—I don’t think I would ever have done that if I had been living down the street from where I grew up.”
Her students, she says, “need that push” to strike out on their own. “If they can afford it, if they can get the scholarship, if they can make it work, then I say, ‘Go away. It’ll be the best thing you’ll ever do.’ ”
The trip gave Draper and the young dancers both a look back at the past (hers) and a glimpse of the future (theirs). “We had so much fun,” she says. The students took classes all day, and Draper took the first ballet class with them, overwhelmed by nostalgia. “I stood at my favorite spot on the barre where I stood all four years when we were doing ballet,” she says. “And all my kids lined up on the barre behind me. It was so awesome for me to see them in there, in my [former] studio with my teachers. That makes me really proud.”
“Probably the most eye-opening thing was seeing Miss Crystal dance with us. I’ve grown up dancing with her, and she taught me basically everything I know. But being back where she learned everything she knows is crazy to me.” —senior Mary Rebekah Barto
For senior Mary Rebekah Bartos, the trip revealed what the college experience might be like, but it also revealed her teacher in a new light. “Probably the most eye-opening thing was seeing Miss Crystal dance with us,” says Bartos. “I’ve grown up dancing with her, and she taught me basically everything I know. But being back where she learned everything she knows is crazy to me. I could see exactly where she gets her combinations, and everything she had been pushing in ballet, I could see where it was coming from. The school itself was gorgeous, and I fell in love with it. And I could see why she was encouraging us all to go to college for dance. She’s always encouraged everyone to go to college, whether it be for dance or anything.”
As for taking class with college students, Bartos says, “I was excited rather than nervous, because it was a place I was looking at for college. It was kind of like an audition before auditioning. And, being with Crystal, it was like home away from home. She was in class with us, and so it was comfortable.”
Raven Brown, who was a freshman at the time of the visit, says, “I was really excited, and I looked over [in class] because I was on a different barre from Crystal and the other students, and it was like, ‘OK, this is kind of scary.’ And I would look over at Crystal and think, ‘It’s OK, you’re fine. Relax.’ ”
Brown was surprised by the atmosphere of the class—simultaneously gentle and rigorous. “I expected it to be a lot more strict, but it really wasn’t. [The instructors] were laughing, but they were on you about technique. It wasn’t controlling and a lot of yelling like I thought it was going to be. They’re there to help you.”
In addition to taking class, the students attended a workshop for prospective students, ate in the cafeteria, toured the campus, and watched a performance.
Draper was delighted by her students’ excitement about Shenandoah and says she’s open to future visits. She’s also open to the idea of taking students to visit several schools. In the context of learning more about college experiences and options, she says, “it would have been much more worthwhile if we could have taken a whole week and stopped at a bunch of schools, and let them do it all week long.”
The girls’ parents were equally enthusiastic about the college visit. Draper says, “I got great feedback from their parents about that trip. They couldn’t get [the kids] on that van fast enough. They thought it was a really great experience, couldn’t believe I was taking eight teenagers all the way to Virginia.”
Draper contrasts this visit with the usual competition road trips. “It was so cool, because most studios require you to pay hundreds of dollars to get on a van and go to a competition where you do one dance and get a trophy and go home,” she says. “This was lifetime-rewarding. They’ll never forget the time that we had, the whole experience. They just had their mouths open the whole weekend. They absorbed it like sponges.”