Dancer Spotlight Leda Pennell – Balancing College And A Professional Dance Career

Photo by Elazar Hare

Q: How did you decide whether to set priorities on college or dance?

A: My mother helped me decide, she told me I could do both. If the opportunity came that I would need to spend more time dancing, I could always drop to part-time or take a break and come back to school later. You can only dance for so long. Whereas with school, you can always return later.

Q: Are you double majoring, or are you minoring in one subject?

A: I am majoring in psychology and minoring in dance.

Q: What year are you currently studying in school?

A: In the fall it will be my fourth year at San Francisco State University.

Q: Will you graduate late because of your choice to dance and go to school?

A: Yes, I am about a semester and a half behind because there were a few semesters that I dropped to part-time to dance more.

Q: Did you begin dancing professional before beginning college or while attending?

A: I began dancing professionally while attending classes at SFSU.

Q: How did you find a company that worked with your schedule?

A: In San Francisco there are a lot of small companies with choreographers who understand the need for an education and work. Both of my companies are like family to me and try to work with my schedule.

Photo by Weidong Yang

Q: Does your school offer additional credit for the work you do as a professional dancer?

A: Unfortunately no, but I think that some performing art schools do offer class credit.

Q: Are you currently dancing with more than one company, or do you have a regular job?

A: BOTH! I dance for the DanceWright Project and Labayen Dance/SF. I also work full-time at Alcatraz Cruises, and have a full load of 12 units at SFSU.

Q: What is your biggest challenge when balancing school and dance?

A: The biggest challenge is making my schedule. Fitting school, dance, and work is difficult. Especially with the CSU budget cuts, it is hard to fit the classes I need with my dance and work schedule.

Q: Describe your typical day

A: It’s different everyday and changes every semester!

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday’s, I usually work all day and try to take an evening ballet class at Lines Dance Center. My Wednesday ballet class is followed by a rehearsal.

Tuesday and Thursday’s I go to school and try to take an evening class at Lines. My Thursday ballet class is followed by a rehearsal.

Saturday I work all day. Sometimes followed by rehearsal or performance.

Sunday I rehearse all day.

There are some days where I am doing stuff from 5am to 9:30pm. And there’s no official day off. However, I consider Sunday my day off because I am spending the whole day doing what I love, dancing.

Photo by Weidong Yang

Q: What makes this lifestyle rewarding?

A: I get to pursue everything that I love! School and dance! (Work kind of sucks, but I have to do it to pay my bills and tuition).

Q: Have you attended summer workshops while in college? Which ones and why?

A: Yes, summer 2009 I went to New York to do the ABT collegiate program because I always wanted to go to New York and thought this would be a great opportunity.

Q: What advice do you have for dancers that are contemplating a similar lifestyle?

A: Know how to manage your time because there are only 24 hours in a day!

Q: What do you plan to do after college?

A: I would like to take a year or two off to continue dancing and working. Then I want to apply to grad schools to someday do research on the psychological motivation and processes of dancers’ need to continue dancing (or playing a sport) while injured. I would like to specifically research dancers. However, it  applies to all athletes.

See Leda perform live with Labayen Dance/SF at Dance Mission Theatre July 23rd-25th. Click on the photo below for a sneak peak of the show!


Choreography by Enrico Labayen Music from Carmina Burana composed by Carl Orff. Dancers for the fist dance are Alyson Abriel, Crystaldawn Bell, Morgan Eichwald, and Leda Pennell. The second dance is Alyson Abriel, Morgan Eichwald, and Leda Pennell. For more info about the show go to 

Choreographer Spotlight – Jamie Wright 

Jamie is not your typical ballet choreographer. He didn’t spend years training in the dance studio or dancing professionally before evolving into a choreographer, he was a drummer, a musician, a copywriter, and even a marketing executive before turning to dance. So, how did this musician and corporate guru go from board room to dance floor? I was fortunate enough to spend an hour with Jamie to find out.

In his mid teens, Jamie was flipping through television channels when he landed on PBS. They had just begun a series called “Dance In America,” and Jamie came face to face with dance for the first time. His main interest was music, but now he saw it in a new light watching Twlya Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls. In the following weeks, he curiously watched as Alvin Ailey and then Dance Theatre of Harlem appeared. Jamie remarked, “I was amazed to see the mix of dance forms like ballet, Horton, jazz, and African dance to current music.” In fact, he was so intrigued with the pairing, that he began exploring dance in different ways. “In college I began to watch class and see shows; I even subscribed to Dance Magazine.”

As years passed, Jamie joined the corporate world and kept his love for dance under wraps, and only attended performances from time-to-time. However, one day things began to change for Jamie, personally and professionally, and once again, dance was back in his life. “At 35 years old I’d been watching all this dance, and I decided to see how they (dancers) do what they do and learn to dance.” Not long after Jamie started to dance, he began to choreograph. “Whatever I’m into, I have to experience all of it…. it’s a weird quirk of mine.” Soon Jamie found himself wrapped up in the San Francisco dance scene. He danced and choreographed for Kathy Mata Ballet, entered the ODC Pilot program for emerging choreographers, and found himself hanging out with Brenda Way and other notable choreographers from around the Bay Area. “I had a need to create no matter what and have people take me seriously.”

Jamie classifies his style as contemporary ballet. “I like the beauty of ballet movement but don’t want it to be a museum piece. I want to keep ballet movement but mix in different styles to keep it fresh.” He clarified and added, “I look for a ballet dancer with modern sensibility.” Through his contemporary choreography, Jamie’s goal is to explore and understand his own feelings of masculinity, femininity and relationships. “I keep asking the question over and over again about art in general… the nature of art is to be as self-revealing as possible… this is my story, and this is what I think.”

He also acknowledged that many of his creations are based off acute interpersonal interactions he has witnessed. Like replaying his thoughts, Jamie recreates the incidents with his dancers, creating his vision of the atmosphere as well as seeing what his dancers feel. Unlike most choreographers, Jamie focuses on and celebrates what makes his dancers unique. He mentioned the excitement he felt during a recent performance where one character was double casted. He said, “Two different dancers gave the audience two different pieces.” Although he sets the steps exactly, he said this allows his dancers “to improve what’s inside and the steps will read differently. I try not to dictate movement or direction until they get stuck. I want their discomfort to come across.”

When asking Jamie about his process, he said, “My process is changing. I use to dictate what and where the movements were. Now that I’m working more loosely with composers, I develop as we go.” He continued to add, “My biggest fear is that dancers don’t think I know what I’m doing… I’m trying to give the dancer space to think. It’s a good thing for an artist to be treated better than cattle. However, some people think it’s unfocused.”

Jamie and I spoke a lot about creating, processes, and dancers, but one thing I was most intrigued by was the advice he had for dancers. He said, “Number one, is to be open and try to go as wild as you can. Risk as much as you can until the director tells you to stop. Number two, become engaged with the music. The music is the dialogue between the movement and dancer. Dancers who can’t hear things in the music, have no investment to the music.” In addition, I asked Jamie what a dancer should never do in rehearsal and his opinion was something every dancer should know and learn. He revealed that it makes him angry, “…when dancers are practicing choreography from another show while they are in my rehearsal. When you’re in the room with the choreographer, everything should be about that experience.”

As our time came to a close, I had just enough time to ask Jamie one more question. I asked what dance was he most proud of creating. His answer was “Right now, Bella Donna was my best piece. Almost a year later, I said exactly what I wanted to say with it. I don’t get tired thinking about it.” He also added, “I don’t really know how it was received, but it was the most vulnerable piece for me. It’s such a quiet piece, I will always look affectionately on it.”

It was quite excited to speak with Jamie about his life as a choreographer. When I lived in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to work with Jamie as a co-worker at LINES and as one of his company members. I was always fascinated with his background and choreographic ideas but never really uncovered his story until now.


Want to see more of The DanceWright ProjectCLICK HERE!

Jamie is currently the owner and artistic director of his own company, The DanceWright Project, in San Francisco, California. His group performs regularly at local festivals and venues around the Bay area. For more information on The DanceWright Project please visit,