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Cap and Gown and Pointe Shoes

Story by
Nancy Joseph

For as long as she can remember, Leah O’Connor has been a ballet dancer. She started dance lessons at age three and joined Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) as a company member at age 19. For the past seven years, O’Connor also has been a UW student. She will graduate on June 15 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology—no small feat, given that she could only take classes at 8:30 am.

Leah O'Connor Pacific Northwest Balet

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Leah O’Connor with soloist Jerome Tisserand in George Balanchine’s Diamonds. Media credit: Angela Sterling

“That was the only time that worked with my dance schedule,” explains O’Connor, whose job involves long days of rehearsal followed by evening performances. “Time management is one of the biggest things I’ve learned doing this.”

PNB supported O’Connor’s efforts through its Second Stage program, an initiative directed at helping dancers develop skills in anticipation of their post-dance careers. O’Connor plans to dance as long as she’s able, but she is well aware that dance careers can be short-lived. “It’s rare that someone will dance until 45,” says O’Connor. “Every dancer has that in the back of their head.”

O’Connor had an additional motivation for earning a college degree: her father. When he passed away following a car accident in 2005, she knew she wanted to honor him by earning her degree. “That was a pivotal moment,” she says. “He was among the first in his family to go to college, and he always impressed upon us the importance of education. I knew that was something he would want me to do.”

O’Connor first took courses at Seattle Central Community College, then transferred to the UW. She has taken a handful of courses online, but the bulk of her classes have been in campus classrooms.

“At first, it was really daunting to figure out what was possible given my scheduling limitations,” she recalls. “It took me a while to realize that there are many people willing to help you. Getting to know the advisers in the Sociology Department made a big difference.”

Leah O'Connor portrait

"Time management is one of the biggest things I've learned doing this," says Leah O'Connor, on the UW campus after class. Media credit: Nancy Joseph

O’Connor particularly recalls a required course that was only offered mid-morning. She saw no solution, and envisioned that single course derailing her UW career. But once sociology adviser Susanna Hansson explained O’Connor’s situation to the professor, a compromise was reached. “I participated in the quiz section, borrowed notes from other students, and got other materials online,” recalls O’Connor. “The instructors were willing to let me do that because of Susanna’s help.”

Beyond scheduling, O’Connor faced the challenge of carving out time to complete her coursework. While performing a demanding ballet like Swan Lake, she would use every spare moment—including her hourly
five-minute rehearsal breaks—to do class reading.

“Oh, Swan Lake,” she groans, when asked about the time required. There would be rehearsals most days, especially the first few weeks, followed by evening performances. And when the curtain came down at 10:30 pm, there was still more to do.

“A ballet like that, you’re on stage the whole time,” explains O’Connor. “There’s a lot of maintenance to ensure that you’re not injured. After the performance I’d take home a bag of ice, eat dinner, ice my feet and ankles, and roll my muscles. I might get to bed at 1 or 2 am. Then I’d be up again at 6:30 to get to the UW for class. It felt like three separate days—school, rehearsal, then the show. It was a never-ending cycle.”

Leah O'Connor Swan Lake

Leah O’Connor (center) with company dancers in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake. Media credit: Angela Sterling

And yet O’Connor insists she wouldn’t change a thing. “Every little girl dreams of being a ballerina, dancing in Swan Lake. Every little girl wants to do what I’m doing right now. Realizing that, it’s hard to be grumpy about it.”

Now that she’s earned her degree, what will O’Connor do with all her newfound free time? 

“I can’t wait to read books that aren’t for a class,” she says. “I plan to stock my personal library and read all the things I haven’t had time to read during school. But there’s a part of me that would like to go to college forever. I really like learning new things.”